Keep Lake Tahoe a National Gem

Significant development of the Lake Tahoe shoreline threatens lake's clarity, lawsuit filed


Wendy Park, Earthjustice, (510) 550-6725
Michael Donahoe, Tahoe Area Sierra Club, (775) 588-5466
Carl Young, League to Save Lake Tahoe, (530) 541-5388

Lake Tahoe is a natural resource known worldwide for its clarity and scenic qualities, but development plans along the shoreline are threatening this gem of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range.

A coalition of conservation groups filed a lawsuit today in federal district court to force environmental review of a shoreline development plan for Lake Tahoe.

The suit challenges the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) for adopting new land-use regulations without thorough consideration of environmental and public access impacts. The Shorezone Ordinance Amendments were adopted Oct. 22, despite strong public opposition. The amendments govern the use of Lake Tahoe’s lakefront shore areas by public and private landholders.

The new regulations would dramatically increase motorized boating, adding more than 62,000 boat trips to current annual boat traffic — increasing noise, water and air pollution; limiting public access; diminishing the scenic quality of the lake; and increasing the threat of introducing such invasive species as the quagga mussel.

By allowing construction of 138 new piers and an additional 1,862 buoys, the plan will produce a further decline in the lake’s clarity and scenic quality, the groups contend.

The new construction will have substantial impacts on water quality, air quality, low-impact recreational activities, and fisheries. The additional boat use created by new piers and buoys will lead to a major increase in the discharge of fuel constituents and combustion byproducts such as nitrous oxides, particulate matter, and hydrocarbons.

"The Shorezone Ordinance amendment allows an unprecedented level of development along the shoreline and dramatically increases motorized boat traffic at Lake Tahoe," said Carl Young from the League to Save Lake Tahoe. "The ordinance fails to remediate for the detrimental water pollution impacts on Lake Tahoe’s famously clear waters."

"We’re trying to safeguard Tahoe’s invigorating mountain air, crystal clear waters, and serene natural beauty where visitors can relax and walk along a beach, and swim and kayak along the shore unimpeded," said Sierra Club leader Michael Donahoe. "The new Shorezone Ordinance will increase motorboat fumes and noise, reduce lake clarity, leave more gas slicks on the water, and create obstacles to walking, swimming and kayaking. Lake Tahoe is an international treasure. We need to keep it that way."

Opponents say the new ordinance will undermine environmental goals established for the region. New pier construction has been limited to certain areas of the lake since 1987, but many of these restrictions were lifted by the October decision by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.

"The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency failed to adopt mitigation measures needed to avoid significant harm to the lake," said Wendy Park, an attorney from Earthjustice who is representing the coalition. "Any increased development along the shores of this world treasure must meet the highest applicable standards and must not damage the lake’s environment."

A Gem Losing its Luster

At the crest of the Sierra Nevada mountains, approximately 6,225 feet above sea level, Lake Tahoe is one of the most revered fresh water bodies in the United States. The lake covers 191 square miles and, with a maximum depth of approximately 1,636 feet, is the tenth deepest lake in the world.

A typical drop of water residing in Lake Tahoe stays there for approximately 700 years. As a result, nutrients that enter Lake Tahoe through inflow or other sources remain either in solution or bottom sediments. Algal growth can be induced by small incremental additions of these nutrients to the Lake.

Historically, the visibility of Lake Tahoe once measured at more than 100 feet deep, but since the early 1960s, water quality in the Lake has shown declining clarity attributable to an increase in algae production and the addition of fine sediments. This degradation has resulted in a decline in Lake Tahoe’s famed clarity at a rate of nearly one foot per year.

Tahoe Regional Planning Compact, Federal and State Law

Under the 1980 Tahoe Regional Planning Compact, entered into by the states of California and Nevada and approved by Congress, TRPA adopted protective standards for air quality, water quality, soil conservation, vegetation, fisheries, wildlife, scenic resources, noise, and recreation. The TRPA has failed to achieve approximately 75 percent of these standards.

Adoption of the Shorezone Ordinance is also likely to result in permanent degradation of Lake Tahoe’s water quality in violation of the Clean Water Act’s strict requirements for Outstanding National Resource Waters, a highly protective designation that has been bestowed upon the lake.

The organizations filing suit today believe the Shorezone Ordinance violates the Tahoe Compact, the Clean Water Act, and the California Environmental Quality Act.

Read the complaint (PDF)

Additional Resources

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