New county environmental leader has tough role
Will residents of the Lake Tahoe Basin be able to face the enormous environmental challenges facing them as we enter the next millennium?
Jon Morgan has two answers. First, the new El Dorado County Department of Environmental Management Director believes that people are doing all they can to protect Tahoe’s fragile resources.
But there’s the rub: people.
“I don’t know if we can do enough to protect that lake,” said Morgan, who was officially installed as DEM Director on Tuesday at the regular meeting of the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors in Placerville. “We can slow the degradation a lot, but we can’t completely stop it.
“It’s the real world,” he said. “As long as there are 100,000 people living in the basin, you’re going to see an impact on the environment. You’ll always have people burning fuel, driving their cars. What’s the answer? The only answer I can see is to get rid of all the people. And I don’t see that happening.”
Morgan, who has worked for the DEM since its inception 10 years ago, is well attuned to Tahoe’s unique gifts and problems. Before taking over as DEM Director in May (on an interim basis, after Ron Duncan retired), he was the department’s Solid Waste and Hazardous Materials Director for 10 years. During that time he was instrumental in developing and implementing the Underground Storage Tank Ordinance program – the first line of defense in Tahoe’s battle against the contaminating fuel additive MTBE.
“One of the biggest crimes the government has ever done here was putting MTBE in the fuel,” Morgan said. “It’s a monster issue, and we nowhere near caught it in time. The MTBE issue is a clear demonstration of the fallibility of the state’s so-called perfect regulations.”
Among other Tahoe-related programs instituted by Morgan and DEM South Lake Tahoe Branch Manager Ginger Huber are the Lake Tahoe Used Oil Recycling Program, a mosquito abatement project and the Meyers Landfill Site Investigation Management project.
During National Clean Boating Week last month, Morgan could be seen at the Tahoe Keys Marina, handing out information packets and cleanup buckets to boaters.
“Our approach is through pragmatic environmental education and enforcement,” he said. “That won’t change.”
The Department of Environmental Management, created in 1989, consists of four divisions – air pollution control, environmental health, solid waste and hazardous materials, and vector control (insect/mosquito abatement).
The department is responsible for most state-mandated environmental regulation, enforcement and waste management programs in the county. For example, when Bennett Sculpture was alleged to have violated state environmental laws with copper contamination at its Shingle Springs site in the early 1990s, it was the Department of Environmental Management which responded and investigated on behalf of the county.
“We’re involved basically with environmental health issues,” Morgan said. “On the West Slope, those tend to involve growth issues. In Tahoe, you have your more high-profile environmental issues. And then there are some generic things common to both sides.”
It can be a frustrating job. Morgan has watched, for instance, as the South Lake Tahoe area has lost 30 percent of its wells due to MTBE contamination.
“It’s a fact of life that Lake Tahoe is gradually going to lose its clarity,” he said. “It can’t be helped with all the people who live in the area. The lake will decline, maybe not in our lifetime, but eventually.
“The question is, what can we do to slow (the decline)? A lot, I think.”
Morgan was raised in Newport Beach, and moved to El Dorado County to “get out of the zoo,” as he put it. “The quality of life is what makes this county special,” he said. “You can’t beat the rural environment; it’s a great place to live and raise kids.
“So you might say that my heart is in my job. I’m the head of a group whose mandate is to protect the public health. It will be a challenge, but one I’m looking forward to.”
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