Lahontan: TRPA fire plan weak on protection of water quality
The agency charged with regulating water quality in the Sierra has criticized a Lake Tahoe Basin fire plan as being weak on protecting the region’s lakes and streams.
Air pollution from burning forest debris could negatively impact Lake Tahoe’s clarity, according to Harold Singer, the executive director of Lahontan Water Board.
“The Fire Plan lacks any focus or goals relating to water quality,” wrote Singer to the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. “Water quality is only evaluated in terms of impacts from catastrophic fire, and not from potential impacts from treatment methods.”
The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency issued the draft plan in February to spend $123 million over the next ten years to reduce the risk of wildfire in the Tahoe Basin.
The plan is not meant to be an analysis of environmental impacts, according to TRPA spokeswoman Julie Regan and Forest Service spokesman Rex Norman. However, as each separate project gets off the ground, there will be analysis of its impacts to water quality, they said.
The plan calls for thinning, prescribed burns and other treatments on more than 36,000 acres in the basin before 2016.
About 18,400 acres of forest have already been worked on, but need to be maintained.
The plan is in draft form and could be approved by the TRPA’s board sometime this fall.
The water board is concerned heavy equipment will impact sensitive streams areas and result in soil erosion. Ash nutrients could also run into streams, it contends.
“The runoff from these activities contribute to increased pollutant loading to Lake Tahoe or its tributaries,” wrote Singer in comments to TRPA.
The water board said hand thinning and over-the-snow thinning are the two most environmentally sensitive ways to clean out the forest and should be considered as an option.
TRPA is pushing for removing the forest debris so it can be used in biomass energy generators.
Norman said they are dealing with a short funding window. Removing the debris on Tahoe’s steeply sloped areas to send to biomass generators – instead of burning it on the spot – is not financially or physically feasible, he said.
“We are going to go with what we’ve got now,” he said. The technology, market and infrastructure for biomass is not available yet, he said.
“We will use all the best and most appropriate tools available to us, including prescribed fire, to reduce the risks to communities, resources and lake clarity. The public, as well as our elected legislators are expecting us to get the job done,” Norman said.
The need for forest thinning in Tahoe is clear, according to the plan. Of the 58 forest test plots studied for the report, 76 percent had enough fuel to turn a low-lying burn into a crown fire.
“It is definitely a sense of urgency because we know the risk of a catastrophic wild-fire at Lake Tahoe,” said Regan.
The TRPA’s plan is an amalgamation of plans from Tahoe fire districts and Forest Service and will help communities qualify for funding from the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, Norman said.
“It’s meant to provide a clear vision for the whole basin,” Regan said. “This document is meant to get everyone on the same page.”
To view the TRPA’s fuels reduction and forest restoration plan for the Tahoe Basin go to: http://www.trpa.org/default.aspx?tabindex=3&tabid=127.
– Sierra Sun assistant editor David Bunker contributed to this report.