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Restoring Clarity to Lake Tahoe

Extensive Shoreline Development Stalled by Court Victory

As a child, Earthjustice client Michael Donahoe spent many early mornings waterskiing along the west shore of Lake Tahoe. The lake was so clear that he could see a hundred feet down into its depths.

"It was a glassy, beautiful, blue lake," said Donahoe, former conservation co-chair of the Tahoe Area Sierra Club. "The boulders that were down there, it looked like you could reach out and touch them." (Audio interview with Michael Donahoe.)

Today, Lake Tahoe's famed clarity has been clouded by increased human activity and urban development that has degraded the lake's air and water quality. Though the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency's duty is to protect and restore the lake, it has instead acquiesced to private developers by downplaying existing regulations.

"The Tahoe Regional Planning Compact explicitly mandates that the agency must achieve and maintain environmental standards, known as 'thresholds,' such as restoration of former clarity levels" said Earthjustice attorney Wendy Park. "But rather than restore the lake, the agency is taking a step backwards by allowing vast new development within the Tahoe basin."

Earthjustice, along with its clients, the League to Save Lake Tahoe and Sierra Club, recently reminded the agency of its duties through a legal victory that blocked the agency's plan to allow the construction of 138 piers and the placement of several thousand buoys in Lake Tahoe's shorezone. Earthjustice filed suit against the agency for failing to conduct a proper environmental review of the agency's shoreline development plan, which would limit the public's access to the shore and further degrade water quality.

"The judge very clearly came out and said that the agency's role is to both achieve the environmental standards that have been established and maintain them," said Donahoe. "He made it clear that the agency has to get back to basics and do what it was set up to do, restore and protect the lake, not just simply avoid doing further harm to it. That's so core. That's a game changer."

The judge's landmark decision is expected to affect all future development plans at Lake Tahoe, helping to keep the lake blue for water-skiers and others for generations to come.

Five Tahoe Trivia Bits

1. Charles Bronson, Cher, Natalie Cole, Sammy Davis Jr., Liza Minelli and Wayne Newton are just some of Lake Tahoe's famous former or present neighbors. (Source:

2. Indian Love Call, starring Jeanette McDonald, was the first movie to be filmed at Lake Tahoe in the 1920's. Others include The Godfather and The Bodyguard, filmed at Fallen Leaf Lake. (Source:

3. Lake Tahoe is protected by the U. S. Coast Guard as an "interstate navigable waterway." (It's also reputed to be the most desirable Coast Guard duty station in the world). (Source: U.S. Forest Service)

4. The biggest fish every caught in Lake Tahoe is a Mackinaw lake trout, weighing in at 37 pounds and 6 ounces. (Source: City of South Lake Tahoe)

5. Many drowning victims are never recovered from Lake Tahoe due to the lake's cold water at lower depths, which preserves the bodies and prevents the formation of gases that would otherwise float them to the surface. (Source: U.S. Forest Service)