Nevada and California have stepped back from the brink of breaking up the two-state compact to protect Lake Tahoe, the largest alpine lake in the world once famed for its crystal clarity.
Nevada’s threat two years ago to withdraw from the compact has receded with a new agreement between California Gov. Jerry Brown and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval. Whether changes agreed to by the two governors – already approved by the Nevada Legislature and now working their way through California’s – will reverse deterioration in the lake and promote orderly development remains to be seen.
Monitoring will be critical. So will continued funding – for stormwater, erosion-control, and road improvement projects and other measures. The federal Lake Tahoe Restoration Act of 2000, which expired in 2010, provided significant funds for this national resource, where 78 percent of the lands in the Tahoe basin belong to the American people – and drew in significant state and local funding, including private funds.
A decade of investment helped slow the deterioration of Lake Tahoe but did not reverse it. For that, persistent and aggressive measures will be needed long into the future.
We still have a long way to go to get anywhere near the water clarity levels of 45 years ago – when an observer could see a white Secchi disk to a depth of 102.4 feet, as measured in annual average readings by UC Davis scientists. Runoff from roadways, parking lots and rooftops, nitrogen from vehicle exhaust and algae continue to take a toll.
Will the May agreement between Brown and Sandoval help or hurt? Implementation is what matters.
Certainly, it’s a good thing that Nevada decided not to abandon the compact. A go-it-alone approach doesn’t work for a resource straddling two states and surrounded by U.S.forestlands.
More significantly, Brown agreed to support the just-completed update of the 1987 Regional Plan. All sides were able to agree on replacing aging, deteriorating structures built in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s in stable areas where erosion is less likely.
But major disputes erupted over the idea of more dense, “mixed use” infill development in existing urban areas. Proponents believe this allows development, while not further impairing the lake. Opponents, such as the Sierra Club and Friends of the West Shore, believe more density in clustered development areas will hurt near-shore water clarity, which has been rapidly degrading. They have sued to overturn the update, believing it eviscerates the aim of achieving environmental thresholds for water and air quality, scenic values and more.
Reconfiguring old, schlocky, damaging development patterns through infill development deserves a chance. The Sierra Club and others, however, do have a real point about the need to strengthen monitoring and enforcement, a weakness of the compact from the beginning.
Funding is essential. The four U.S. senators for California and Nevada have reintroduced the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act – $415 million over eight years – for stormwater management, watershed restoration, forest thinning, prevention of Asian clam infestation and more. Significantly, $30 million would go to scientific research on long-term trends in the basin. While Rep. Tom McClintock, who represents Lake Tahoe, co-sponsored this bill in 2009, the House has no companion bill yet. That should change.
The California bill to approve the Brown-Sandoval agreement (Senate Bill 630) passed the Senate and comes up for a vote this week in the Assembly. It would set up a Lake Tahoe Science and Lake Improvement Account and create an advisory council of scientists who could make recommendations on monitoring. Give the renewed California-Nevada partnership a chance, while accelerating actions that would reverse Lake Tahoe’s deterioration and return it to 1968 levels of clarity.