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Local News

Lake Tahoe remains murky after 25 years and a $2.9 billion investment 


Dana Gentry, Nevada Current
March 19, 2024

A nearly $3 billion effort shepherded by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency during the last two decades to ‘Keep Tahoe Blue’ has prioritized spending on recreation and transportation over improving water quality, according to the agency’s own data.  

“The TRPA is more concerned about economics than the lake’s restoration. And the lake is in really bad shape,” says Tahoe Area Sierra Club vice-chairman Tobi Tyler. 

“Lake Tahoe is in the midst of an environmental crisis,” said the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act, passed by Congress in 2000. The Act attributed the loss of clarity in the lake’s cobalt-blue waters to pollution caused by a variety of factors, including land disturbance, erosion, air pollution, highway drainage and urban runoff. 

Water clarity in Lake Tahoe declined from a visibility level of 105 feet in 1967 to 70 feet in 1999, according to the Act, which estimated that without remediation, the lake would “lose its famous clarity in only 30 years.” 

The federal government owns 77% of the land in the basin and “has a unique responsibility for restoring environmental health to Lake Tahoe,” the Act says. It authorized $300 million in funding “for environmental projects and habitat restoration around Lake Tahoe.”

After almost a quarter of a century, another $114 million in federal money appropriated in 2016 (an additional $300 million authorized that year has yet to be appropriated), and more than $2 billion in state, local, and private funding, Lake Tahoe’s visibility has improved by one foot since 1999  – measuring 71 feet deep in 2022, according to a report from the University of California at Davis.

“Water quality and watershed restoration has been a top priority for LTRA funding,” says Jeff Cowen, spokesman for the TRPA. The Act has enabled “some of the largest wetland restoration projects to date such as the Upper Truckee River Marsh restoration and Taylor Tallac wetland restoration. The act also helped Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team partners to complete over 90,000 acres of forest health treatments and funded the removal of aquatic invasive weeds, with over 200 acres of treatment completed to date to improve water quality and clarity.”

The Act expires this year, however a bill introduced by Nevada Republican Rep. Mark Amodei last year would reauthorize the $300 million approved in 2016.  Critics suggest despite massive spending,  the TRPA has failed to prioritize water quality, as the government intended. Amodei did not respond to a request for comment. 

“The Lake Tahoe Restoration Act supports critical environmental protection, wildfire prevention, and habitat restoration programs across the basin, and I’m leading bipartisan, bicameral efforts to reauthorize this legislation,” Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto said in a statement. “There’s more to do to help preserve Lake Tahoe for future generations, and I’ll keep working with stakeholders to ensure this funding is supporting programs to protect Lake Tahoe, reduce pollution, combat invasive species, and support local jobs.”

Cortez Masto declined to say if she’s satisfied with how funds have been spent in the past. “The TRPA sets its own funding priorities and works with state, local, and federal agencies to implement the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act,” a spokeswoman said.

Nevada Democratic Rep. Dina Titus did not say whether she is satisfied with how the Act’s funding has been prioritized, but in a statement said she’s working with colleagues “to push for critical funding to protect Nevada’s environment and boost our vibrant tourism economy. Anyone who’s visited Lake Tahoe understands the importance of preserving it for future generations and I support the reauthorization of the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act.”

Other members of Nevada’s congressional delegation did not respond to requests for comment.

“The Restoration Act is just a money-funneling operation,” says Tyler of the Sierra Club. “It’s been going on for years.” 

“TRPA is spending more on recreation and transportation combined than on water quality or forest health,” says Incline Village resident Pamela Tsigdinos. 

Since 1997, TRPA has allocated $1.1 billion to restore watersheds and improve water quality and $1.5 billion for recreation and transportation, according to data on its website.

“The agency now focuses more on attractions and bringing more people into the basin. Yet there’s no Tahoe basin-wide evacuation alert system or comprehensive plan to move people out during a wildfire evacuation,” Tsigdinos notes. 

A spokesman for the TRPA did not provide comment.  

In December, over fervent objections from some residents, the TRPA approved an amendment that seeks to increase density in the basin’s town centers in an effort to augment workforce housing. Mountain Area Preservation (MAP), a non-profit environmental organization, subsequently filed a lawsuit in February. 

“They are market solutions with city urban planning. Tahoe is not a city,” MAP’s executive director Alexis Ollar said at the time. 

The TRPA has also been criticized for approving luxury projects after developers complain plans for affordable housing projects don’t pencil out. 

From wetlands to beach club

“The TRPA is not about providing affordable housing. They are about approving luxury real estate ventures,” says Lake Tahoe resident Dr. Staci Baker. 

 The Tahoe Regional Planning Authority approved a luxury condominium complex on a flood plain, adjacent to the habitat for a rare plant that grows only on the shores of Lake Tahoe. (Photo: Dr. Staci Baker)

The Tahoe Beach Club (TBC), a sprawling complex of more than a dozen buildings built on a swamp, promises luxury lakeside living at a lofty price. A three-bedroom, three bath condo runs about $4 million, according to TBC’s website. In 2009, the TRPA approved the project, which included bulldozing a trailer park and displacing renters who paid $500 a month, according to news reports. The TRPA mandated the developer compensate for the loss of housing with affordable units, which today rent for $1,600 a month.  

“TRPA approved this luxury condo complex on a riparian area beside the Tahoe Yellow Cress plant.” Baker says. The plant, a member of the mustard family, is found only along the shores of Lake Tahoe. “What will save the lake are these riparian marsh areas.”

In 2000, the Tahoe Restoration Act noted “destruction of wetlands, wet meadows, and stream zone habitat has compromised the Lake’s ability to cleanse itself of pollutants.”

A project planned by the U.S. Forest Service to restore the wetlands adjacent to TBC is being scrutinized by developers of the condo complex, who are frustrated by flooding risks.

Tyler says the Burke Creek/Rabe Meadow Restoration Project was approved with minimal environmental review. 

“The Tahoe Beach Club is located on private property which was previously out of water quality compliance. When the property owner proposed the redevelopment project, TRPA required a full Environmental Impact Statement and public review prior to approval of the permit,” says Cowen. “The permit also required Tahoe Beach Club to implement large scale stormwater treatment infrastructure, protected areas for Tahoe Yellow Cress, and paid mitigation fees to public entities to acquire adjacent wetlands for restoration and public access.”

“That meadow is working. This is not a restoration project. It’s a flood control project. They’re moving 6,000 cubic yards of material right next to the lake. They are filling in a pond – a habitat for ducks and beavers,” says Tyler. 

At a meeting last month of the Douglas County Lake Tahoe Sewer Authority, Andrew Strain of TBC noted the development “has 25 residential units, with each having a value of more than $2.5 million,” according to the minutes. “Damage to the residential units as the result of increased groundwater from this project, Mr. Strain indicated, could result in significant liability for all involved.”

“It’s in a floodplain, of course it’s going to get flooded,” says Tyler, an engineer and former employee of the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board. “The TRPA approved the Tahoe Beach Club and underground parking on a flood plain. And the Beach Club is intimating the Forest Service could be liable.” 

The situation is an “example of developers trashing the environment for these luxury homes. The right thing to do when they removed the trailer park would have been to restore the riparian area and keep Tahoe blue,” says Baker. 

The Lake Tahoe Restoration Act’s initial funding was non-binding. Critics of the TRPA are hoping Pres. Joe Biden’s administration will ask Congress to attach strings to any additional funding, should the reauthorization be approved. Biden is making campaign stops Tuesday in Reno and Las Vegas.   

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This article is republished from Nevada Current under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.