Guest view: Protecting Lake Tahoe takes all of us
Protecting a fragile environment like we have at Lake Tahoe takes far more than any single agency, organization or individual. Fortunately, environmental protection at Lake Tahoe has come a long way since the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) was created nearly 40 years ago. The level of collaboration between agencies has progressed, as has the sense of environmental stewardship among each person who lives here. As we head into the summer building and landscaping season and start thinking about ways to make improvements, I want to tell you what we are doing to help preserve this special place.
Communication and customer service
Over the last two years, one of the most frequent requests I’ve received from the public is to improve customer service at TRPA. I believe we’ve made progress in this area and I’d like to share a few things we’ve done to improve things on our end. This year, we reorganized staff to create a focused team on communications and customer service and hired a new community liaison. We have perhaps the best front counter staff we’ve ever had at the TRPA – customers have gone so far as to bring in homemade baked goods in appreciation for excellent customer service. TRPA staff members review thousands of project applications every year and help more than 5,000 inquisitive callers with project-related questions. Since our regulations and review standards are designed to protect Lake Tahoe and may differ from building codes in other places, we work hard to simplify our rules for the public. Our new community liaison, Jeff Cowen, will be focusing on this task and will function as a bridge between the community and the agency.
Our customer service team has embarked on an ambitious campaign to revamp all of our permit applications to make our project review process, and the reasoning behind it, more understandable to the general public. We also have an over-the-counter permit streamlining process for specific applications which has dramatically improved customer service. While we still have work to do, we’re making good headway on this front.
Summer landscaping and stewardship
Summer is a busy time of year at the lake. As many of you install best management practices (BMPs) or do home landscaping this summer, I encourage you to be a guardian of Lake Tahoe by making educated choices about plant types and fertilizer use. Over-fertilizing or using fertilizer that is high in phosphorous or nitrogen allows harmful nutrients to seep into Lake Tahoe where they feed algae and aquatic plants that degrade the famed clarity of our water. There are an increasing number of low-phosphorous, low-nitrogen fertilizers available in Tahoe, and with about 40,000 homes and businesses surrounding the lake, making smart fertilizer choices can make a big impact.
Vegetation and ground cover not only beautify a home, they provide an excellent safeguard against the biggest threat to Lake Tahoe’s clarity – fine sediment. The particles of dirt that are slowly clouding the lake are extremely small, and they come from every property in the basin as well as roadways. You can keep fine sediment from escaping from your yard by covering bare soil with 1 to 2 inches of pine needles or mulch and by planting native and adaptive plants. These measures are part of the requirements for installing BMPs, but they are also simple things people can do to protect Lake Tahoe. Having defensible space around your property to protect against wildfire is also important. Fire districts and TRPA have worked together for several years to combine defensible space measures with BMPs. We agree that keeping pine needles five feet away from structures is recommended. For more information on landscaping, visit http://www.trpa.org or call us to request a home landscaping guide.
Airport tree-cutting issue
Many conversations are occurring around Tahoe about an incident at the South Lake Tahoe airport in late May. About 387 trees were clear-cut at the airport in violation of a permit which allowed a maximum of 100 marked trees up to 10 inches in diameter to be cut for airplane safety. Many large trees were cut that were protecting stream banks on the Upper Truckee River from eroding. Let me be clear – TRPA values public safety. We have a history of working with local governments to ensure public safety is not compromised while also protecting Lake Tahoe. If the city had collaborated with the TRPA, I believe we could have found a better alternative than clear-cutting so many trees especially in the sensitive environment along the river.
What happened at the airport and its long-term effects will unfold in time. We are actively investigating the matter and believe that everyone – private property owners and government entities – must be held to the same standards that are designed to protect Lake Tahoe. Any decision about how to resolve the situation – including potential penalties – will be made by our governing board after the investigation is complete.
Keep up to date with the latest issues at TRPA including new permit applications by visiting our Web site at http://www.trpa.org or contact our community liaison, Jeff Cowen, at (775) 588-4547 ext. 278.
– John Singlaub is executive director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.