Lake Tahoe community battles over future of development and preservation

December 26, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Lake Tahoe, straddling the border of California and Nevada, attracts 3 million visitors each year. But decades of economic development and climate change are now putting the lake's famously blue waters in danger. Gabriela Quiros of KQED reports on the conflict between development and protecting the lake for generations to come.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: to a very different fight back here in the U.S.

There is a contentious battle over how to protect the iconic blue waters of Lake Tahoe, which sits on the California-Nevada border. The agency that overseas development in the area has proposed a new set of rules for construction. The Sierra Club and other groups have challenged the plan in court, arguing it favors economic growth over environmental protection.

Gabriela Quiros of KQED San Francisco reports.

WOMAN: OK. We will go around the island. We will look at the waterfall. We will look at some osprey nests, and then we will go fast.

GABRIELA QUIROS, KQED: Lake Tahoe’s famous waters are the clearest of any large lake in the United States. They attract 3,000,000 visitors to California and Nevada each year.

GEOFF SCHLADOW, Tahoe Environmental Research Center: The blueness comes in large part from just the incredible cleanliness of it. What’s pretty wonderful is that you’re really living in an environment that does have all the hallmarks of a national park, but anybody can come here, anybody can live here. And the trick is, how do we keep that quality and keep using it?

GABRIELA QUIROS: That question has guided scientists like Geoff Schladow and hounded policy-makers ever since the 1960s, when researchers at the University of California at Davis first documented a decline in the lake’s clarity.

The university’s Brant Allen takes measurements every 10 days.

BRANT ALLEN, Tahoe Environmental Research Center: When we try and translate lake clarity to the public, what they want to know is how deep into the lake can they see? And so I will be lowering the Secchi disc down into the lake until it disappears, getting our clarity reading for the day.

GABRIELA QUIROS: Allen lets a Frisbee-looking device called a Secchi disc sink until it disappears.

BRANT ALLEN: Eighteen meters, or right around 60 feet, and that’s pretty typical for a summertime reading. The Secchi does vary seasonally.

GABRIELA QUIROS: Since 1968, the lake has lost 20 feet of clarity, mainly due to uncontrolled urbanization in the 1950s and 1960s.

The 1960 Winter Olympics raised the lake’s profile and encouraged development, as did Frank Sinatra, who hosted celebrities at his Cal Neva Casino. Sierra Club volunteer Laurel Ames witnessed the development boom firsthand as a young woman growing up on the lake.

LAUREL AMES, Sierra Club: When I was in college, I came home one weekend, and my parents said, oh, you should go down and look at what they’re doing to the swamp.

GABRIELA QUIROS: What some residents considered a swamp at the south end of the lake was actually a large wetland. Replaced in the 1960s by a maze of houses and canals called the Tahoe Keys, the wetlands was no longer available to filter dirt and pollutants out before they flowed into the lake.

When plans for development threatened a pristine corner of the lake, citizens organized. They pressured California, Nevada and the federal government to enter into an agreement, or compact, that would regulate development around the lake.

LAUREL AMES: They agreed that Tahoe was threatened, and that Tahoe need to be protected by a planning agency, a regional planning agency.

GABRIELA QUIROS: Starting in the 1980s, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency restricted all new construction. Scientists had discovered that dirt eroding and washing in from urban areas contributed more than any other pollutants to clouding the lake.

GEOFF SCHLADOW: It’s due in large part to very fine particles, things like dust that’s coming from the roads, and also steep dirt surfaces prone to erosion.

GABRIELA QUIROS: Hard surfaces like roads and parking lots can keep transporting dirt years after they’re built. So even though development slowed down, the lake continued to lose clarity.

GEOFF SCHLADOW: The ultimate goal is to restore clarity to what it was back in the — in the 1960s. That’s a Secchi depths reading of about 97 feet. Right now, we’re at about 70 feet, so that’s a — that’s a large change.

If we can cut off things like pollutant flows into the surface, then we would estimate that in something like 20 to 30 years, the lake’s clarity could be restored, if all the right things were done.

GABRIELA QUIROS: But doing the right thing comes with a hefty price tag; $1.6 billion in federal, state and local funds have been spent over the last 15 years on wetlands restoration and other improvements. And the Tahoe Planning Agency requires visitors and locals to follow strict, and often expensive, rules.

Private contractors like Rob Basile make a living helping homeowners comply.

ROB BASILE, private contractor: Everyone needs to pave their driveway, so when it rains, it doesn’t wash sediment off your compacted dirt driveway into the creek. And then you need to capture and treat the storm water runoff from your roof and from your driveway, so that it doesn’t leave your property.

GABRIELA QUIROS: The new channel in his driveway is costing Brad Kohler $2,000.

BRAD KOHLER, homeowner: I personally don’t mind at all doing it, and not only am I willing to do it. I think it’s really important to put in these filtration systems.

GABRIELA QUIROS: But even though this rule has been on the books for 20 years, only one-third of residential and commercial property owners have complied. The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency wants to change this, says public information officer Jeff Cowen.

JEFF COWEN, Tahoe Regional Planning Agency: Meeting property owners at the door with a list of, you’re going to have to do this, and you’re going to have to do this, and you’re going to have to do this has resulted in very little progress in environmental restoration on the private sector. So — so, we are trying something new.

GABRIELA QUIROS: In the first comprehensive overhaul of its rules in the last 25 years, the agency has loosened some of its building restrictions, hoping to entice property owners to put in filtration systems.

The planning agency holds up the Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course, in Stateline, Nevada, as an example of what it would like to achieve.

PATRICK RHAMEY, Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course: Most of the new hotel project will be located on the ninth fairway.

GABRIELA QUIROS: In exchange for permission to build a 200-room hotel on one of their fairways, the golf course owners agreed to remove a parking lot and two buildings that had been built on wetlands.

Edgewood executive vice president Patrick Rhamey explains.

PATRICK RHAMEY: So the investment in the hotel allows us to invest back into the land and do better for the lake, and have the financial flexibility to add more wetlands and storm water controls.

GABRIELA QUIROS: But the Sierra Club and several Lake Tahoe environmental groups filed a lawsuit in February to stop the new rules, which they argue will add more dirt to the lake.

LAUREL AMES: When you increase density, you increase people. When you increase people, you increase cars. And when you increase cars, you have to add parking. So you add asphalt.

JEFF COWEN: There isn’t going to be an explosion of growth in Lake Tahoe from this plan. There isn’t going to be a sudden explosion in land coverage, and certainly nowhere near the lake.

PATRICK RHAMEY: Preserving lake clarity is the lifeblood of any business that’s here at Lake Tahoe. Its about the lake. That’s the reason why people come here.

GABRIELA QUIROS: The battle will play out in court over the next year. So far, scientists believe that efforts to keep dirt out of the lake are paying off, at least during the wet winter months.

GEOFF SCHLADOW: In winter, there actually has been an improvement because of many of these storm water projects that have gone in.

GABRIELA QUIROS: Still, nearly every summer, the lake continues to get cloudier. Scientists now suspect that warmer summer waters, brought on by climate change, are making the lake more prone to algae, a problem that could prove even more intractable than dirt.