Capitol Alert

One good thing about the drought? Lake Tahoe water clarity

Nevada Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison, left, and California Gov. Jerry Brown attend the 19th Annual Lake Tahoe Summit at Zephyr Cove, Nev., on Monday.
Nevada Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison, left, and California Gov. Jerry Brown attend the 19th Annual Lake Tahoe Summit at Zephyr Cove, Nev., on Monday. The Associated Press

In recent months, California’s drought and raging wildfires have served as backdrop to Gov. Jerry Brown’s appeal for greater measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Dry conditions increase fire risk, and a new study last week added to research linking rising temperatures to worsening effects of the drought.

Brown has used these findings to amplify his concerns about climate change, and at an annual conference on the state of Lake Tahoe on Monday, Brown once again called for efforts to “de-carbonize the economy.”

But standing on the beach, Brown spoke before a body of water that in one major way is benefiting from the drought. While scientists worry about warming water and receding lake levels, the lack of rain has prevented dirt and grit from washing into the lake. Fires burn in the distance, but Tahoe’s clarity has only improved.

“So far, the impact on Tahoe physically has generally been positive,” said Geoffrey Schladow, director of the Tahoe Environmental Research Center at University of California, Davis.

He called the drought’s effect on Lake Tahoe a “wonderful example, this proof of concept” that if more steps are taken in wet years to reduce stormwater runoff, from better street sweeping to creek restoration, “the lake will respond.”

In a report last month, researchers at Davis found average water clarity at Lake Tahoe last year was the best in more than a decade, improving to nearly 78 feet from just more than 70 feet in 2013.

Still, average annual temperatures were the highest recorded in Tahoe City since 1910, and average surface temperatures on the lake reached an all-time high.

Scientists worry that if the lake warms, water will fail to mix, depleting oxygen in deeper water in what Schladow called “sort of a doomsday scenario, if our predictions are right.” If the drought lingers, other researchers say wetlands that filter runoff could fail, harming the lake.

On Monday, Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein said her “major priority” now is preventing wildfires around the lake.

She and the three other U.S. senators from California and Nevada, including Dean Heller, a Republican, are pushing legislation to renew the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act, which first passed 15 years ago and expired in 2010. The bill would authorize $415 million over ten years for various projects in the area, including restoration and wildfire prevention.

But Rep. Tom McClintock, a Republican from Elk Grove whose district includes the California side of the lake, has introduced much less expansive legislation on the House side – allocating about one-fifth as much money as the Senate bill.

Julie Regan of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency said the introduction of legislation by McClintock is a “milestone” for the House. However, she said, “there’s a big gap” between the funding level he proposes and the one the senators are behind.

Speaking to reporters, Brown, a Democrat, rejected the idea that McClintock’s smaller bill is all the Republican-controlled House could be persuaded to approve.

“Smaller versions come from smaller minds,” Brown said. “And Lake Tahoe – the environment – are big. And we have to expand our thoughts, invest intelligently.”

Then Brown turned once again to climate change.

“But we also need to take account of the fact that with so many people and so many cars and so much carbon pollution, we need to offset that with real plans,” he said. “Whether it’s protecting the lake from invasive species or doing the right thing by way of the forests, or electrifying vehicles, or maybe bringing back the trains that used to take people to Tahoe. All of that costs money, but it actually improves our quality of life and makes things better for everybody, no matter what the small minds say.”

David Siders: 916-321-1215, @davidsiders