Future of basin depends on actions of today
May 2, 2003
Editor’s note: This is the third of five stories about the Lake Tahoe Management Unit of the Forest Service as it turns 30 this year.
People have changed Tahoe, and Tahoe has changed people. From the 1960s through the 1990s, a fitful process unfolded to determine a way to the future of the basin.
The U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit has been the principle land manager in the Tahoe Basin, but the agency has certainly not been the only organization that has had a stake in the future. A bewildering host of agencies and organizations have played roles in Tahoe basin planning over recent decades; agencies like the Tahoe Area Council, the Tahoe Regional Planning Commission, the California Tahoe Regional Planning Agency and the Nevada Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. The Tahoe Improvement and Conservation Association originally formed in 1957, changed its name in 1964 to the League to Save Lake Tahoe and focused toward responsible development, largely in response to the 1980 Plan for Lake Tahoe. Endorsed in 1964 by the Tahoe Regional Planning Commission, the plan foretold a host of major planning, development and highway projects, including a proposed bridge across the mouth of Emerald Bay. The plan also envisioned 130,000 permanent residents in the Tahoe basin by 1980, and a large expansion of urban and commercial development. Then there was the bistate Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, which would not see congressional ratification of the bistate compact until 1969.
Over the next several years, study after study, plan after plan was developed, debated, rejected, opposed, promoted or discarded. It was an era of crisis and confusion, with lawsuits lobbed in all directions. By 1980, the flaws in the original bistate compact were obvious, and California and Nevada revised it in their legislatures, creating the compact we know today. The controversies were far from over, but at least some of the confusion was beginning to diminish.
In 1983, the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit was 10 years old, and forest planning and projects were well under way. Unlike the decades before, Tahoe residents and resource managers were now seeing the Tahoe basin as a holistic ecosystem in which the blue of the lake was dependent on the green of the forest. The clarity of Lake Tahoe was measured on average as nearly 74 feet in depth. Ten years earlier, a research scientist’s depth-measuring Secchi disc could be viewed on average at around 85 feet below the surface.
In 1967 the disc was visible over 100 feet in depth. An overall trend had become apparent — Lake Tahoe had steadily lost a quarter of its famed clarity. Exactly why the trend of diminishing clarity was occurring was reasonably well understood by 1983 — combinations of materials were entering lake water. Specifically these are naturally occurring algae nutrients, carried to the lake by run-off and erosion, and through the air in dust and air pollution.
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Lake clarity improved in the late 1980s, yet few major projects to enhance clarity and water quality had really begun. Drought in those years was the probable reason. It is likely that with less water and run-off flowing into the lake, less sediment and less algae feeding nutrients were carried in. Algae starved and died back, improving clarity slightly. But this improvement was only temporary. Until sizable measures could be taken to permanently reduce and control erosion and run-off, future heavy winters and rain would surely bring about a sudden reversal.
Unlike the smaller number of generalist rangers and forest mangers in decades before, the 1980s saw science and specialization for the Forest Service; the staffing increased as the “ologists” arrived. Management of forest resources needed scientific expertise, skill and knowledge. Biologists, botanists, hydrologists, archaeologists and others could assist in making the highly complex and technical decisions that the Tahoe basin and modern forest management required.
Environmental documents like environmental impact statements became more critical and more critically scrutinized. Science had to be solid, data accurate and documentation complete.
The drought of the ’80s along with insect infestation took a toll on the green of Tahoe’s forests. Since the early 1900s, society’s demand for full fire suppression allowed forests, including those in the basin, to dramatically grow in density. Into the 1990s, the natural co-conspirators of drought and insects would attack stressed forests and bring massive tree mortality; and with this, increased danger of wildfire.
Watershed protection, hazardous fuels reduction and forest health took on greater emphasis. Large wildfires could bring seriously negative impacts on communities, as well as water quality. With a new comprehensive view of the basin as an inter-dependent ecosystem, interagency partners including the LTBMU, laid out a blueprint in the 1990s for environmental improvement. This became the basis for the environmental improvement program. In this basinwide approach, science was providing enough data to chart a course of action to reverse or at least manage many of the environmental troubles facing the Lake Tahoe Basin.