Environment, economy, politics could decide future of Tahoe bill
LAKE TAHOE – Some Lake Tahoe advocates are cautiously optimistic about the chances of the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act of 2011 passing through a Congress rife with anti-spending rhetoric.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., introduced the newest version of the restoration act Wednesday to the U.S. Senate. The bill authorizes $415 million in federal spending during a 10-year period to improve water clarity, reduce the threat of wildfire and restore the environment.
The bill is “extraordinarily important to the future of Lake Tahoe,” said Tahoe Regional Planning Agency spokeswoman Julie Regan.
“We are certainly concerned about the timeline ahead given the difficult economic times in Washington,” Regan said. “However, we are optimistic that our Congressional delegation will make the case that Lake Tahoe deserves continued investment.”
The legislation is co-sponsored by Sens. Harry Reid, D-Nev., John Ensign, R-Nev., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. It’s also sponsored by the TRPA, North Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce, Lake Tahoe South Shore Chamber of Commerce, California Tahoe Conservancy, League to Save Lake Tahoe, Tahoe Area Sierra Club, Trust for Public Lands, Tahoe area fire chiefs, Tahoe Fund, Army Corps of Engineers and the Washoe Tribe.
Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif. and Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev supported the previous incarnation of the bill, introduced last year.
Bipartisan support exists for the current version of the bill, Sen. Reid said in a statement.
“The Lake Tahoe Restoration Act is … supported by the entire Nevada and California delegations, which is why it passed out of the Environment and Public Works Committee unanimously last Congress,” Reid said. “We know of no specific objections to the bill, but we have just begun the difficult process of long-term budgeting and we’ll have to see how the important priority of protecting and restoring Lake Tahoe fits in as we work to create a responsible, sustainable budget.”
The bill passed out of the EPW Committee during the 2010 legislative session, but subsequently foundered.
The bill did not gain passage in 2010 because of time constraints and that it was lumped into a larger package with other public land bills – referred to as an omnibus bill, a spokesman from Sen. Feinstein’s office said.
Other bills in the omnibus incurred the censure of legislators, but the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act was one of the more popular of the legislative items, the spokesman said. Backers of the bill from the business community helped collect support, the spokesman added.
Feinstein and other supporters have yet to finalize their strategy regarding how they will package the bill during this year’s session.
Phone calls to McClintock, Heller and Ensign’s offices seeking comment went unreturned.
While the federal dollars will be leveraged toward continuing research projects, Regan said the bill is not exclusively about Lake Tahoe’s environment.
“This is also an economic issue,” Regan said. “Environment is the economy in Lake Tahoe. We have a $5 billion economy that is entirely dependent on the quality of the environment. So, this is a jobs bill as well.”
The first Lake Tahoe Restoration Act, signed in 2000, jump-started the regional Environmental Improvement Program, which included more than $1 billion in federal, state, local and private investment toward the restoration of the basin.
TRPA can demonstrate a return on federal investment by pointing to progress made in a number of environmental sectors, specifically that Lake Tahoe’s decline in clarity has flattened in recent years due to erosion-control measures that were predicated on water quality studies, Regan said.
Public agencies have collaborated to make “tremendous strides in environmental improvement over the last 13 to 14 years, and a continued investment of funds is crucial for reaching environmental goals for the region,” Regan said.
Federal funding is fundamental to continuing applied research that informs policy decisions in the Lake Tahoe Basin, said Maureen McCarthy, executive director of the Tahoe Science Consortium.
The Tahoe Science Consortium is an umbrella organization which includes the Desert Research Institute, University of California, Davis, University of Nevada, Reno, U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station.
The organization allows for scientific and research collaboration among the groups to provide data and research for the development and implementation of environmental policies.
“Federal dollars have been tremendously beneficial,” McCarthy said. “We receive approximately $3.5 million a year, which funds about 12 to 14 research projects that demonstrate both technical merit and a degree of relevancy to the region’s public agencies.”
Funding scientific projects that can inform policy decisions and further knowledge of ecological trends is important, McCarthy said.
“If applicants do not demonstrate they can do both and do both well, they don’t get funded,” she said.
TRPA relies on many of the research programs funded through federal dollars along with matching investments from California and Nevada and private sector investment, Regan said.
“The decisions this agency makes must be grounded in quality field and applied science,” Regan said.
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