As Tahoe Summit Turns 20, A Look At The Tahoe Restoration Act

Aug 31, 2016

Obama cited both climate change and Tahoe's role as a sacred space as reasons for protecting the lake.
Credit Marcus Lavergne

The annual Lake Tahoe Summit celebrated its 20th year the way it began, with a presidential visit. But the event is not just a media stunt, it actually has deep significance for the health of the lake. Our Tahoe-based reporter Amy Westervelt has that story. 

Most locals think of the Tahoe Summit as a simple celebration of the lake they call home. But the summit has actually had a big impact on conservation efforts, as Senator Harry Reid explained at this year’s event.

“We envisioned 20 years ago what we wanted to accomplish and we’ve done that and maybe a little more. Lake Tahoe is more pristine than it has been in decades.”

Darcie Goodman-Collins, executive director of the League to Save Lake Tahoe, the organization that brought us the Keep Tahoe Blue sticker, says back in the 1990s the Lake had hit a record-low in clarity and was facing multiple threats, including traffic, blight and invasive species. “After the President and vice President learned about the importance of Tahoe and what needed to be done to protect it, it started the process for getting congressional legislation to bring federal funding to the basin,” she says.

That legislation, the Tahoe Restoration Act, passed in 2000 and unlocked more than $300 million in federal funds for the lake, which eventually grew to much more. “Usually there’s a state required match, so then the states re-obligate themselves to it, counties, and then there’s a whole private sector component to it too," says the League's deputy director Jesse Patterson. "So that $375 million eventually became close to $2 billion.”

Lake Tahoe got so much federal attention for a few reasons: it’s beautiful, sure, but it’s also one of only two Alpine glacial lakes in the world. The other is Lake Baikal in Russia, and the Russian government had already committed to protecting its glacial lake. Then there’s the fact that 80 percent of the land in the Tahoe Basin is owned by the federal government. “It needs funding, it doesn’t have a built-in system for bringing money in, like a national park system," Patterson says. "A lot of people just assume Tahoe is a national park, it’s not. It’s not managed for conservation, it’s managed for multiple use. You gotta find other ways to get money in here.”

The original Restoration Act ran out in 2010, and two attempts to renew it have failed. A third attempt, which would bring $415 million to the lake, is now making its way through Congress. The funding would go toward programs aimed at reducing pollution and invasive species, restoring land throughout the basin, and combatting climate change. With bi-partisan support, the League’s Collins says she’s optimistic.

“There seems to be a lot more interest in pushing it through. With Senator Reid retiring this year, he really wants this to be his legacy and it’s also coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the summit,” Collins says.

A competing House proposal, led by Republican Congressmen Tom McClintock, from California, and Mark Amodei of Nevada, would bring about $60 million in funding to the basin, largely for fire prevention. Last month, Heller was confident a resolution between the two could be reached. Of McClintock he said, “He’s willing to get it out, let’s go to conference, let’s iron out our differences. Let’s do something for Lake Tahoe instead of sitting back in Washington DC, twiddling our thumbs and not getting anything done.”

But Heller was noticeably absent from this year’s Summit, prompting questions over how much bi-partisan support the Senate legislation truly has. And Senator Reid has been dismissive of Heller’s efforts in comparison to Governor Brian Sandoval and former Nevada senator John Ensign. “Brian Sandoval has been good on the lake. John Ensign was wonderful, tremendous to work with; conservative, but pragmatic and just terrific. And maybe Dean will come on later but he hasn’t … well he hasn’t been a John Ensign on the lake, let’s put it that way.”

The League’s Patterson says he hopes the politicians keep the future in mind. “It sounds like a big number, but restoration isn’t cheap and restoration takes multiple years and follow-up. And people aren’t going to stop coming to Tahoe. More and more and more people are coming here, so the impacts are gonna keep coming.”

A vote on the Tahoe Restoration Act is expected this year.