On February 29th, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) acted illegally in not analyzing the boat pollution impacts for over one thousand illegal boat mooring buoys in the lake and that it must do so before it can approve other lake development. The appeals court upheld a lower court ruling that found proposed amendments to the shoreline development plan were invalid. Under the new ruling, TRPA will retain discretion in how it will conduct a new study of the impacts of legalizing these buoys.
TRPA has proposed allowing an additional 138 new piers, thousands of new buoys, and other boat facilities, resulting in more than 62,000 additional boat trips each year on the lake. The construction and additional traffic would have imperiled water and air quality, and negatively affected non-motorized boaters and public shoreline access.
“This case is about protecting Lake Tahoe from thousands of additional boats before we first know how adding all of these boats will impact the lake,” said Carl Young of the League to Save Lake Tahoe. “More buoys mean more boats, which mean more boat pollution impacts. A typical speed boat is hundreds of times more polluting than a Subaru vehicle.”
In their original Shorezone Amendment, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency used both the number of legally permitted buoys as well as illegal buoys that it should have removed as the baseline number of buoys existing in the Lake. As a result, TRPA failed to study the effects of its plan to allow newly permitted buoys to replace illegal buoys on a one-for-one basis.
“At a minimum, the environmental impacts of adding thousands more boats to what once was the clearest lake in North America has to be thoroughly understood and fully mitigated before, not after, additional boats are added to the lake,” said Laurel Ames, Tahoe Area Sierra Club.
“For decades, TRPA has been responsible for policing and removing illegal buoys on the Lake and it has clearly failed in this responsibility. Then the Agency tried to mask the environmental effects of these buoys by counting them as part of the existing Lake development. This is a faulty policy that the Court ordered TRPA to reevaluate,” said Earthjustice attorney Wendy Park.
The ruling came the same day that a UC Davis panel reported clarity has sharply declined from historic levels with summer clarity levels in 2011 registering the second worst on record.
In November 2008, conservation groups filed suit against the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency to force a proper environmental review of the agency’s shoreline development plan.
In 2011, a federal district court judge sided with conservationists and overturned the plan.
That court ruled that new boat facilities should not be allowed along the shoreline until TRPA shows how it will achieve mandatory environmental goals aimed at restoring the Lake to its former clarity and improving the environment of the spectacular Sierra basin.
The decision holds implications for a separate TRPA plan to substantially increase urbanization and development on land in the Tahoe Basin over the next 20 years.
The appeal involved TRPA’s claim that it should not have to examine the environmental impacts of legalizing a significant number of mooring buoys that are currently on the lake illegally, despite the fact that these buoys contribute to increased motorized boat traffic on the lake.
Lake Tahoe is the largest alpine lake in North America. The beauty of its cobalt blue waters and pristine clarity has inspired visitors since the time of Mark Twain. Lake Tahoe is protected by a decades-old Congressionally-approved Compact between the states of California and Nevada, which mandates the region to protect the environmental health and scenic quality of the Lake Tahoe Basin watershed.
The League to Save Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Club are represented by the non-profit law firm Earthjustice in this case.