Climate Change, Development Impacting Lake Tahoe's Future

Aug 23, 2017

The annual Lake Tahoe Summit brings together elected representatives from Nevada and California to discuss the future of the basin.

This year, officials focused on the impact of climate change and urban development on its famed clarity.

Reno Public Radio’s Noah Glick reports.

On a warm, sunny day at the lake’s south shore, Sally Kiesel takes a bike ride along one of the many local trails.

“I enjoy the beauty of Tahoe, the serenity and the peace once the summer crowd is gone,” she says.

Dozens of residents, visitors, agency officials and civic leaders gathered at South Lake Tahoe for the 21st annual Lake Tahoe Summit Tuesday.
Credit Noah Glick

On this day, she rides right past dozens of people, including researchers, government officials and state dignitaries. They're all here to discuss the future of the treasured alpine lake and its famed clarity.

Tom Lotshaw is a spokesperson for the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. He says clarity is important because it provides an overview of lake health.

“It’s a sign of harmful impacts to the lake and that sort of thing, sort of a bellweather,” he says. “And that’s also one of the oldest, longest-running data sets that we have for the lake, so we can look back to the 1960s and see what those clarity readings were.”

Lotshaw says one of the things fogging up clarity levels is runoff from urban development. He's currently working on a program with the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection and the California Lahontan Water Board that sets targets for counties and municipalities to drastically reduce the amount of sediment they send to the lake.

And in the first five years, he says pollution is down 12 percent…

“…which is about 268,500 pounds of fine sediment particles that will no longer be washing into the lake,” he says.

Matt Nussbaumer is a principal hydraulic engineer for the Nevada Department of Transportation. His agency has also been working to reduce sediment pollution, by installing curbs and gutters along many of Tahoe’s thoroughfares.

“It’s a work in progress. We’ve pretty much completed or in progress of completing projects on all of our roads up in the Tahoe Basin,” he says.

But there are limitations. Nussbaumer says it’s difficult to build large-scale facilities needed to remove fine particles, while still maintaining a good flow of traffic.

“The roads are what they are, there’s not a lot of opportunity to expand, go wider, especially on the Nevada side,” he says. “The roads are close to the lake and steep topography, steep terrain, so yeah.”

Keeping dirt and deposits out of the lake is just the first step. Geoff Schladow is the director of the UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center, which recently released its annual State of Lake Tahoe report. He says there’s also a bigger factor at play.

“It’s not just clarity, from erosion and fine particles, but it’s that plus the impact of climate change,” he says. “And so, knowing that, having that realization, it’s now a lot easier to go forward with appropriate mitigation measures.”

How to do that exactly has been an issue of national debate for years. While the Trump administration has signaled for cuts to environmental regulations that hamper business, there’s a layer of protection for Lake Tahoe.

That’s because last session, Republican Nevada Senator Dean Heller co-authored legislation with Democratic California Senator Dianne Feinstein that authorized federal funding for Tahoe projects for ten more years.

And the entire delegation from Nevada and California, which included all four senators, Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval and Republican U.S. Representative Tom McClintock, all agree that climate change is an issue that must be addressed.

Here’s Sandoval.

“Well, it’s indisputable for all of us. We’ve all experienced one of the hottest summers, if not the hottest summer that we’ve ever had. It does change the dynamics of the lake,” he says.

Feinstein, who hosted this year’s summit, says she’s optimistic that people of all parties and politics will work together to preserve the lake.

“Pulling this team together, having Republicans work with Democrats, finding where we agree and moving forward will save this lake.” She adds, “I deeply believe that.”

As lawmakers wrap up their comments, Alexandra Murray sits just steps away, cradling her baby on one of Tahoe's public beaches.

“This is Sarah Murray. This is her very first time in Tahoe…”

For Alexandra, the lake is a place for everybody.

“Tahoe is a place that everyone can come visit, whether they own one of the mansions on the lake, or if they come to one of the public beaches,” she says. “And I think it’s really amazing that we’ve kept the lake this pristine, and I know it’s taken a lot of hard work.”

And it’s work that all elected officials in attendance vowed to continue.