JULY 22, 1997
A group in Nevada and California looks to slow development to stem the environmental problems taking hold in Lake Tahoe. Can their plan work? Spencer Michels reports.
JIM LEHRER: Spencer Michels reports the Lake Tahoe story from the California-Nevada border.
SPENCER MICHELS: Jim Hildinger, a photographer and resort owner, started coming to Lake Tahoe in 1931. Now, a year-round resident, he keeps his sailboat on the lake, which sits at 6200 feet elevation in the Sierra Nevada Mountains astride the California-Nevada border. What attracted him and millions of others was the beauty of the alpine setting and the amazing clarity of the water. Now, that environment is changing.
JIM HILDINGER, Lake Tahoe Resident: You can see that itís a green color.
SPENCER MICHELS: Hildinger says the color of the water is the most obvious symptom of Tahoeís problems.
JIM HILDINGER: A mere 30 years ago, it was the color of my jeans. It was blue-gray. And you could see a white disk at 110 feet. We canít do that now. We can only see one now at about 74 feet. In another 30 years you wonít be able to see it at all.
SPENCER MICHELS: The water color--a result of algae--is just one of a host of environmental problems facing the Tahoe basin. Hildinger says all those changes can be blamed on too much growth.
JIM HILDINGER: One or two people in the Tahoe basin, even a thousand people, wouldnít have any effect on the lake at all. But when you bring in 4 million a year, now youíve got a problem. And when you disturb the watershed, you bring dirty water into the lake. And then the lake changes.
SPENCER MICHELS: So what do you do?
JIM HILDINGER: If I were king, I would stop development tomorrow.
SPENCER MICHELS: There is no question that development has caused problems. Pavement and buildings now cover thousands of acres that used to be wetlands and meadows, meadows which filtered the algae-laden rainwater before it ran into the lake. Now there is nothing to stop the algae from blooming in the water.
But development is not about to stop either. Gambling casinos rise from the Southern lakeshore on the Nevada side of the state line. They employ more than 8,000 people that bring in $300 million a year in gross revenues. On the California side of the shore are the motels and tourist shops and attendant traffic jams. In 1969, the first attempts to regulate roads were begun. A regional planning agency was set up by Nevada, California, and Congress, since these agenciesí boundaries crossed state lines.
Developments like this one, which had replaced natural wetlands with upscale homes and artificial channels, no longer were allowed. But the agency, which tried to slow growth, also made enemies, like Mary Gilanfarr.
MARY GILANFARR, Tahoe Preservation Council: The ambitious desire to extend regulations into positively every aspect of human activity has made it extremely difficult for people to remodel their homes or add on to them, to maybe increase their deck or build a garage, if they want to live in the home year round. It even was virtually impossible to pave your driveway for many years.
SPENCER MICHELS: Lawsuits challenging stringent regulation at Tahoe, were common. The U.S. Supreme Court recently decided one case in favor of property owners. According to the director of the League to Save Lake Tahoe, Rochelle Nason, the battle lines between developers, property owners, businesses, and environmentalists seemed set in stone.
ROCHELLE NASON, League to Save Lake Tahoe: It was extremely contentious. There were years of very bitter battles. There were years of very bitter battles. There were times when people didnít dare put a "Keep Tahoe Blue" bumper sticker on their car; it might be vandalized.
SPENCER MICHELS: But then something changed. The deteriorating environment started to cut into tourism, started to hurt the economy, and the factions realized cooperation was better than war.
ROCHELLE NASON: Strict regulation is not going to go away here because it is absolutely necessary for protecting what we have. On the other hand, for environmentalists, we have to realize the community was not going away.
We were not going to turn this into a national park. And there was more to be gained by working together, looking for solutions to common problems than to spending all of our resources on warfare.
LEWIS FELDMAN, Lawyer: Itís difficult to sustain a conversation because of all the road noise.
SPENCER MICHELS: Attorney Lewis Feldman, who represents developers, says his clients, as well as the casino owners, have had a change of heart.
LEWIS FELDMAN: They thought the lake was invincible. They didnít--nobody believed or understood that there is a degradation of water quality occurring. And so that wake-up call was a profound wake-up call. And people have come to realize, quite frankly, that we have to protect the lake first, or there is no business.
SPENCER MICHELS: The community has come together in making plans to revitalize and upgrade this aging business section of South Lake Tahoe. Many tacky, unprofitable 50's style buildings near the state line will be torn down and replaced with more attractive resort facilities, lessening the total number of rooms, opening up more views of the mountains and lake, and adding water treatment facilities.
Another success is the restoration of this meadow. It had been turned into a polluted lake and then abandoned by a subdivision developer. After seven years of planning and working with local residents, the Tahoe Conservancy, a California state agency, rebuilt this meandering stream. Steve Goldman is project manager.
STEVE GOLDMAN, Tahoe Conservancy: You can restore a natural system reasonably well. Itís a lot of work to undo the damage that man has caused through many years of really ignorance of what they were doing to the environment. And--but it is possible to bring it back and make it beautiful.
SPENCER MICHELS: Even the ski resorts, historically antagonistic toward regulation which had stifled their expansion, have come on board.
SPOKESMAN: There will be comment cards--
SPENCER MICHELS: Tahoe activists of widely different ideologies are now working together on a new project, helping plan the Lake Tahoe Environmental Summit. They want to show the President and the Vice President that former enemies can work together for a common goal. But creating a healthy Lake Tahoe is something they say theyíll need federal help to achieve.
While much of the Tahoe lakeshore is devoted to profit-making ventures, about 4/5 of the land in this spectacular basis is owned by the U.S. Government and administered by the Forest Service. So the locals feel justified in asking for federal help in restoring this injured environment. Tahoe activists say they need about $800 million. One of the top priorities for federal financing is to help clean up the water flowing into the lake. Locally-funded efforts have not been enough, according to Pam Drum of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.
PAM DRUM, Tahoe Regional Planning Agency: These are not sexy things. These are erosion control projects, storm water treatment projects. Itís rock riffraff that you see along the road cuts. There are detention ponds to collect storm water, slow it down, allow it to infiltrate into the soil.
SPENCER MICHELS: Another priority for federal money is the forest that pervades the Tahoe basin. Several years of drought brought an invasion of bark beetles, which have been killing pines and furs and increasing the likelihood of fire. John Swanson of the Forest Service says getting rid of the dead trees--often with helicopters--is very expensive.
JOHN SWANSON, U.S. Forest Service: Over the course of time the trees deteriorate to the point that they no longer have any value for lumber, or even for firewood. Theyíre just rotten trees. And theyíre about to fall over at that time, and itís a pure expense then to remove then. And most lumber companies are not interested, unless we can pay them outright to do the work.
SPENCER MICHELS: Finally, the Tahoe activists would like to get more money for public transportation to get the tourists out of their cars. Public bus service has been initiated. More money would help speed it along. It was those kinds of projects that prompted Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada to persuade the President to visit Tahoe.
SEN. HARRY REID, (D) Nevada: If weíre going to save this lake, we canít do it ourselves. And so I went personally to the President, and I said, Mr. President, Lake Tahoe is in deep trouble and we need you to come and take a look at it. We need the power of the federal government to focus on this.
SPENCER MICHELS: And a national focus on Lake Tahoe is just what local businesses and environmentalists alike need, says Stan Hanson of Heavenly Valley Ski Resort.
STAN HANSON, Heavenly Valley Ski Resort: Weíre starting to see some of the hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars that developers have either put in, or that both states of California and Nevada have put into planning and working with the resources starting to work. Thatís why this presidential conference thatís coming up is so important to all of us.
SPENCER MICHELS: Why?
STAN HANSON: Why? Because it puts a focus on Lake Tahoe and makes a commitment to the regional plan, which was created by Congress.
SPENCER MICHELS: Hanson threw a party recently at the top of the Heavenly tram for business leaders, government officials, and environmentalists. It was a gathering of people who would hardly talk to each other a few years ago. Now, they want to ask the President with one voice to help them restore what they consider a national treasury.
JIM LEHRER: That conference with President Clinton and Vice President Gore will take place this weekend.