With Lake Tahoe’s federal funding pipeline drying up and dramatic climate change-induced challenges facing the lake, politicians and public figures gathered at Sand Harbor on Monday, Aug. 19 to look back on the $1.7 billion that has been spent in the Tahoe Basin over the last 15 years while peering ahead into Lake Tahoe’s future.

The Lake Tahoe Summit was headlined by Al Gore, who as vice president attended the 1997 summit that launched the $1.7 billion Environmental Improvement Program. California Gov. Jerry Brown, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein also attended and spoke at the event.

“We can celebrate and we can look back on the commitments that have been made, but we have to acknowledge that now is the time to renew our commitment, to go the rest of the way, to make sure we win the battle for Lake Tahoe’s future,” said Gore in his address.

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The future includes some very concerning projections about climate change, which were highlighted by UC Davis’ State of the Lake report. Released in early August, the report said that Lake Tahoe recorded its highest average annual temperature ever in 2012. The warming temperatures could have long-term effects on the lake’s delicate dynamics that include lake mixing, algae growth, and invasive species proliferation.

Gore said that climate change is a product of treating the atmosphere “like an open sewer,” and urged the audience to help “win the conversation” about global warming.

Gore’s visits bookend the federal funding of the Environmental Improvement Program, giving Tahoe agencies a chance to look back on the $1.7 billion that has been invested in the lake so far. That money has financed 414 completed environmental projects and supported 194 projects that are still in progress. Projects include more than 54,000 acres of forest thinning, erosion control on 628 miles of roadways, restoration of 15,896 acres of wildlife habitat and 1,509 acres of streams, and the construction of 136 miles of bike and pedestrian routes.

While $554 million of the Environmental Improvement Program’s funding has come from the federal government, another $1.2 billion has come from local, state, and private sources.

Those other funding sources will continue to fund environmental restoration at the lake, even as a U.S. Senate bill to authorize another $415 million in federal funding navigates the federal legislative process, said Jeff Cowen, spokesman for the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. The federal reauthorization of the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act is sponsored by Sen. Feinstein and backed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, but the bill’s ability to pass through the U.S. House of Representatives is doubted by experts.

While funding is always a focus of the Lake Tahoe Summit, the inter-state relationship between California and Nevada, which appeared headed for divorce earlier this year, was also at the forefront. The two states have reconciled their relationship, as evidenced by the attendance of both governors at the event.

But heated disagreements over Tahoe’s newly adopted regional plan, which is currently being litigated by the Sierra Club, have boiled over into the states’ attempt to formalize their reconciliation. California Senate Bill 630, which would have codified changes to the compact that the two governors had verbally agreed to, is being opposed by the Sierra Club.

The bill would require that “the regional plan reflects changing economic conditions and the economic effect of regulation on commerce” and places the burden of proof on litigants that challenge the regional plan or TRPA board decisions.

The Sierra Club has joined with Friends of the West Shore, the North Tahoe Preservation Alliance, and other environmental groups to create the Coalition to Preserve Lake Tahoe.

The group said in a press release that the regional plan would “bring radical change to Tahoe’s look and feel, with new tall buildings, intense urban development, and increased traffic and congestion around the lake.”

The coalition’s website homepage shows the Domus Development affordable housing project in Kings Beach Photoshopped onto the edge of Tahoe’s shoreline and other pages show ski resort villages Photoshopped onto Tahoe meadows.

“The Sierra Club’s criticism of the plan is so outlandish to us. What they are saying is not supported by anything in the plan,” said Cowen “They say some cool, catchy stuff and leave restoring Lake Tahoe to us.”

But even while national and state politicians displayed unity at the Lake Tahoe Summit, the strident opposition of the Coalition to Preserve Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Club’s lawsuit against the regional plan and opposition to California Senate Bill 630 remain serious hurdles to the implementation of the TRPA’s plan for Tahoe’s future.

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  • David Bunker

    David Bunker almost dropped out of journalism school to hunt non-native rats on an uninhabited Pacific island. Instead, he graduated college and launched into a career of dump truck driving and ditch digging before taking up writing as a profession. He’s written for newspapers and magazines across the West and won numerous first place awards in the California and Nevada press associations.

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