Capitol Alert

Tahoe summit meets amid concern over lake level

One year after California and Nevada resolved a long-standing feud over development around Lake Tahoe, John Laird, secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency, arrived at a summit near the water’s edge Tuesday and said “peace is at hand.”

The annual gathering of politicians, environmentalists and researchers has been colored in previous years by tension over the governance of the basin surrounding Lake Tahoe, with Nevada passing a law in 2011 threatening to withdraw from a two-state partnership known as the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency unless California made concessions to allow more development.

The two sides reached an accord last year, and California Gov. Jerry Brown in October signed legislation ratifying the agreement.

Now, Laird said, “people are talking.”

Yet major concerns persist about preservation efforts at the lake, exacerbated by climate change and, in the shorter term, drought. Researchers at University of California, Davis, expect the lake to fall below its natural rim level this year.

Dry conditions have forced dock closures, affected river rafting in the area and raised alarms about invasive species in the lake, said Julie Regan of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. Effects, she said, are “widespread.”

“We’re really concerned,” she said.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein cited improvements in water clarity, erosion control measures and wildfire management in recent years, and she cheered the introduction of a $415 million preservation bill for the lake.

“That’s restoration projects focused on water quality, storm water management, invasive species protection,” she said. “It’s hazardous fuels mitigation and wildfire prevention projects.”

But the bill has yet to be heard in the Republican-controlled House, and its prospects are uncertain.

“We face an uphill battle to get the bill passed,” Feinstein said. “The federal budget isn’t what it used to be.”

Asked about the prospect of the bill gaining Republican support, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters, “It’s always an issue. The tea party seems to hate public land.”

U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock, a Republican whose district includes the California side of the lake, said the current bill is too expensive and should be reduced to focus on wildfire prevention efforts. He called a catastrophic wildfire the “greatest natural threat facing Lake Tahoe.”

The uncertainty of the bill weighed heavily on the summit, at the Tallac Historic Site near South Lake Tahoe. Regan said the funding is “critical” for the future of the lake. But considering the divisions in Washington, she said, “We understand it’s a difficult climate.”

Local disputes are not entirely resolved, either. The Sierra Club and other environmentalists remain in court over the California-Nevada pact, objecting to a provision delegating many planning decisions to local governments. Environmentalists fear local officials will authorize more development around the lake.

U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez dismissed the lawsuit in April, but the Sierra Club has appealed.

“We don’t think development is going to help the situation at all,” said David Von Seggern, chairman of the Toiyabe Chapter of the Sierra Club.

As to the improved relations Laird and other summit attendees referenced, Von Seggern said dryly, “We still have a bit of an edge.”

One year ago at the summit, Brown criticized environmentalists for their opposition to the agreement, saying the interests of Nevada and California amount to more than “just what some Sierra Club chapter around Tahoe wants.”

He was far less contentious Tuesday, offering the Legislature’s passage of a plan to put a $7.5 billion water bond on the fall ballot last week as evidence bipartisan agreements can be reached.

Brown said disagreements with Republicans on the composition of the bond were so significant he did not know on the eve of the vote – when Brown said Republicans “marched out” of his office – if a pact could be reached.

“Well, the next day the California Senate voted unanimously, with every single Republican and every single Democrat voting for the water bond, and that’s pretty unusual,” Brown said. “And I can tell you there are Republicans in that state Senate who are more conservative than Mr. McClintock.”

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