NBC Bay Area: State Leaders Discuss Lake Tahoe’s Future Amid Worsening Climate Conditions

By Bay City News

U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla, D-California, and U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Roseville, made an appearance in Nevada on Tuesday to join this year’s Lake Tahoe Summit — an annual discussion among state, federal and environmental leaders on how to better the Lake Tahoe Basin.

Hosted by U.S. Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nevada, this year’s conference revolved around the prompt “Protecting Lake Tahoe’s Future” — noting both the accomplishments made over the years, and how to move forward as climate change continues to bring about new or intensified challenges to the community. Many leaders mentioned water quality, forest management and wildfires as talking points.

“Lake Tahoe has incredible cultural significance for so many, and it also plays a key role in our economic success,” Rosen said at the summit. “People come to Nevada and California from all over the country and the world to enjoy Lake Tahoe, to revel in seeing one of the world’s most beautiful and clearest bodies of water.”

Rosen is backed by a group of California and Nevada legislators to reauthorize the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act, a landmark law set to expire in two years that holds some of Lake Tahoe’s strongest protections, including funding for wildfire fuel reduction in forests, watershed restoration, invasive species management and overall environmental improvement programs.

Padilla, referred to as an “honorary Nevadan” by Rosen at the event, hosted last year’s summit during his first year in the Senate. He said policymakers need to double down on efforts to combat the climate crisis as the western United States faces its driest 22-year stretch in more than 1,200 years.

“That’s why we’re all here today, to celebrate this pioneering, basin-wide, bi-state collaboration, and the renew our commitment to the work,” Padilla said. “The conservation coalition represented here today has set the standard for interesting collaboration and environmental improvement by throwing hundreds of millions of dollars to the region.” Padilla recently secured $269,000 in a federal appropriations bill for Lake Tahoe Community College to support a scholarship program for the next generation of forestry students in the basin.

“From Congress, to state leaders, to our partners on the ground — this is the manifestation of ‘it takes a village,'” Padilla said. “It takes a bold Congress that has passed more landmark legislation than anyone thought was possible, given our thin Democratic margins.”

McClintock said protecting the Tahoe Basin requires “clear-eyed and clear-headed” decisions, and that “stifling environmental laws and lawsuits make managing forests endlessly time-consuming and cost prohibitive.”

He called for more excess timber to be removed and more aggressive attacks on early-stage wildfires.

“Our public and private forests are in dramatically different condition, even though they sit side-by-side, in the same terrain, in the same climate,” McClintock said. “That should warn us that this ultimately is a forest management issue, and this problem is not going to go away. Even if we all ride our bikes to work and substitute tofu for hamburgers.”

Also released Tuesday was a bi-state environmental report that revealed Lake Tahoe’s iconic water clarity is improving, said California and Nevada environmental oversight agencies.

Levels of fine sediment pollution, which makes the lake murky, were reduced by 600,000 pounds in 2021 alone, according to the report. Researchers attribute this progress to the collaborative efforts between federal, state and local agencies, as well as private landowners.

As visitor and resident populations have continued to increase over the decades — an estimated 15 million people stop by the lake a year — water quality began to suffer due to pollution from cars, construction and general human activity. The lake was clearest in 1970, with a visible depth of 97.4 feet.

Despite the progress, researchers say there’s much to learn about the ways climate change, drought and wildfires pose as a threat to the lake’s health.

“Our program’s efforts have become even more critical as Lake Tahoe faces other water clarity challenges from wildfire, smoke, and climate change,” California Environmental Protection Agency’s Mike Plaziak said in a statement. “Going forward, restoring lake clarity will require us to continue our close coordination and implementation of best practices at every level, from how we maintain roads to how we gather data and adapt our strategies to manage climate impacts.”

Earlier this month, senators from both states urged the Biden Administration in a letter to reinstate a federal-level advisory committee for Lake Tahoe to address the dwindling employment rate in the USDA Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. The Forest Service unit has had three supervisors in the past two years, which the senators note as “concerning.”

“We would like to work with you and the service to explore opportunities to maintain the unique role and stature of the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, including making Forest Service positions more attractive for future applicants looking to take on and stay in these important roles for the long-term,” reads the letter.

President Joe Biden’s national climate adviser Gina McCarthy concluded the summit with her keynote address. Before serving as the nation’s first adviser for its climate agenda, McCarthy previously ran the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the Obama Administration.

“We can work together as a country, we are talking about new clean energy, we’re talking about sustainability, we’re talking about our health, our well-being and our future,” McCarthy said. “I am excited about the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, I’m excited about the Inflation Reduction Act and I am excited to see folks like you getting together celebrating our successes, and recognizing that there is always so much more to be done.”

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