Looming Tahoe Deal Is a Bad Deal for the Lake

Any day now, the fate of Lake Tahoe’s famed blue waters could be drastically compromised.

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Any day now, the fate of Lake Tahoe’s famed blue waters could be drastically compromised.

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and California Gov. Jerry Brown could seal a bi-state deal that will encourage the agency created to protect the lake from pollution and over-development to place economic development front and center. The California Senate recently passed SB 630 to approve the deal that caves in to Nevada’s threats to dissolve a more-than-four-decades-long “marriage” to protect Lake Tahoe.

But what is California getting out of this deal?

One thing it would gain is neutralizing Nevada’s looming threat of divorce. The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, formed in 1969 through a compact between California and Nevada that was approved by Congress, made history as one of the first watershed-based environmental protection and restoration agencies in the United States.

Nevada casino and resort developers have long protested that TRPA’s regulations protecting Tahoe’s scenic ridgelines, clean alpine air and crystal clear waters make it too difficult to build more high-rise hotels that require new parking lots and attract more cars to the basin.

In 2011, Nevada passed SB 271, which requires Nevada’s pull-out from the compact if California does not agree to pro-development amendments. The new deal would result in SB 271’s repeal, but only if California accedes to equally troubling terms.

Nevada’s demands are that TRPA must consider “changing economic conditions” and the “effects of regulation on commerce” in land-use planning. But while morphing TRPA into an economic development agency may temporarily benefit a few developers, Nevada politicians and local tax coffers, it would be fundamentally at odds with TRPA’s mission to protect Tahoe’s irreplaceable values, beloved and enjoyed by Californians and visitors from all over the world.

Not to mention, a healthy Lake Tahoe basin is necessary for a healthy outdoor recreation and tourism economy. Prioritizing economic development instead of environmental health will only end up hurting both the environment and the local economy, and the resources that support them. Too much pavement and too many cars are already to blame for runoff, causing loss of lake clarity.

Nevada has also required California to support “full implementation” of TRPA’s new regional plan passed last December, but the plan’s legality is in question.

This new plan shifts authority over future development decisions to local jurisdictions, which do not have a mandate to protect the lake. Decisions made by one local government will affect others in the area and, if not coordinated, will result in poorly planned development that degrades the entire Lake Tahoe basin. The new plan also allows those towns and counties to adopt weaker pollution and development controls than otherwise required by TRPA. This would undermine the very idea behind the agency’s creation—that protecting Tahoe’s water quality, clean air and natural beauty is the top priority, and one that must be handled at the regional level.

TRPA is unique in its mission to create and implement region-wide solutions for environmental protection. Though it still has a long way to go in meeting soil, air and water protection standards—including lake clarity—it has done a decent job in curbing the rampant growth that preceded its regional oversight.

However, the impending bi-state deal is threatening all that—which again raises the question, what has California to gain? Or, what has it to lose by not capitulating to Nevada? Two-thirds of Lake Tahoe’s shoreline lies in California. The bulk of state funding for the lake’s protection—$4 million per year—comes from California, outpacing Nevada’s contribution four to one. So, why is Nevada dictating the terms?

Keeping the compact intact is important but would be an empty gesture if TRPA’s mission has strayed from protecting the gem of the Sierra to promoting economic development. And while Tahoe’s economy suffered after the 2008 financial crisis, as did the rest of the country’s, the economy is already rebounding and tourism is thriving around the Lake.

Earthjustice is a member of a new group, whose name says it all: Coalition to Save Lake Tahoe. Local, regional, and national groups dedicated to ensuring that Tahoe remains a beautiful place to live and to bring our families to visit have come together to alert Californians and Nevadans about changes happening to the Bi-State compact and to keep strong environmental protection standards for Lake Tahoe intact. Two of the coalition members, the Sierra Club and Friends of the West Shore, represented by Earthjustice, recently filed a federal lawsuit, challenging new land-use rules for Lake Tahoe that seriously reduce protections for the treasured mountain lake.

There are many of us who often daydream about abandoning our day job and taking off for a quick trip to Lake Tahoe. All of us, especially those who have grown up loving Lake Tahoe as that special place to visit, now need to stand up for the lake lest we lose what makes it so special. The California Assembly and Gov. Brown urgently need to hear that environmental protections come first.

Kari Birdseye worked at Earthjustice from 2011–2016, as a national press secretary and on advocacy campaigns protecting our health and the environment from the impacts of pesticides and toxic chemicals.

The California Regional Office fights for the rights of all to a healthy environment regardless of where in the state they live; we fight to protect the magnificent natural spaces and wildlife found in California; and we fight to transition California to a zero-emissions future where cars, trucks, buildings, and power plants run on clean energy, not fossil fuels.