Climate change front and center at Tahoe (Opinion)
As ashes fell delicately from a blazing orange sky earlier this week, Lake Tahoe got a jarring glimpse of just one of the threats of the climate crisis. The frequency and intensity of wildfires in the west are breaking records and destroying communities. Scientists are also measuring wilder weather patterns, more severe droughts, and changing ecosystems as the planet’s temperature rises. More drought means more dead trees, and hotter summers mean a longer and more severe fire season.
Here at Lake Tahoe, over the last 100 years, the average daily minimum air temperature has risen 4.2 degrees and for the first time on record averages above freezing. Snow is declining as a fraction of total precipitation and more extreme winter rain events are expected.
An ecosystem as delicately balanced as Lake Tahoe’s can suffer greatly from even smaller changes. Data collected since 1970 shows Lake Tahoe’s average water temperature has increased by 1.4 degrees — a massive leap that makes the lake more susceptible to algae growth and invasive species, and less susceptible to the deep mixing that brings cold, clear water up from the depths and saves our famed water clarity from further decline.
Even with myriad challenges going on around us today, climate change could remain our greatest test. The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency is collaborating with both California and Nevada to set climate action priorities and is implementing a collaborative sustainability action plan for Lake Tahoe that stands up to the rigorous climate standards of both states. Green jobs, green infrastructure, redevelopment of town centers, and greenhouse gas reduction targets are all a part of it, but a critical element going forward is the delivery of major transportation, traffic reduction, and mobility projects.
The need for this focus came through clearly at the annual Lake Tahoe Summit in late August. Urging resilience, Lake Tahoe’s legislative leaders and the governors of both states came together to bolster the collaborative work to restore Lake Tahoe and address the impacts of climate change on this spectacular environment. US Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D‐NV), this year’s Summit host said, “Just because Tahoe is resilient doesn’t mean its strength is limitless. We need to strengthen the lake — and the communities that depend on it — so that it can endure the challenges of the future.”
And as pressure on popular recreation areas continues to build, we are seeing additional impacts that threaten the very thing that residents and visitors alike clamor to enjoy about Lake Tahoe — a clean, healthy environment. Transportation solutions also need to help balance recreation with available resources.
Make no mistake, the transportation goals before us will take significant commitment to achieve. That’s why both California and Nevada formed a bi‐state consultation group this year to double down on priority setting and funding regional transportation projects. Transportation partners have delivered fare‐free transit service for all, are adding electric buses, and will pilot on‐demand transit service between Reno and the North Shore next summer. All of these projects are essential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve the lake’s air and water quality.
Corridor plans for California State Route 89 around Emerald Bay and Nevada Highway 28 near Sand Harbor are ready for funding and implementation. These areas need bike and pedestrian improvements, better transit options, and parking solutions to improve safety and water quality. The Highway 50 South Shore Community Revitalization project will realign a major transportation route and bring significant bicycle, pedestrian, traffic, and economic improvements to one the Region’s most heavily used main streets.
The path forward will take an epic level of collaboration and absolute resolve. The erratic nature of the world this year has brought challenge upon challenge for all of us — at TRPA, for land managers, and for everyone who loves this amazing place.
With each solution, more problems have arisen. Limited government resources have been easily overwhelmed. We share the frustration, but to achieve climate resilience at Lake Tahoe we must share a common purpose, common resolve, and move as one. We must put aside any notion that there is an “us” and a “them.” It will require something of all of us, and everyone has a role to play in achieving a healthy and sustainable Lake Tahoe.
Joanne S. Marchetta is the executive director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.
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