In over 20 years of Tahoe Summits, much has been done to protect the lake (Opinion)
Growing up in Northern California, I spent my summers visiting the Tahoe Basin, learning to appreciate the natural environment. Those summers were filled with trips into the remarkable backcountry, biking around the lake’s 72-mile perimeter and swimming in its clear, blue water.
It’s those memories that I would carry with me each year into the Lake Tahoe Summit – California and Nevada’s annual meeting to discuss the challenges facing our shared lake. Unfortunately, because of the coronavirus pandemic, we are unable to gather in person on the shores of the lake this year, but instead will gather virtually to celebrate Lake Tahoe and the progress we’ve made protecting it.
The push to protect the lake began more than 20 years ago, during the first Lake Tahoe Summit. Senator Harry Reid of Nevada invited President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, and the California and Nevada congressional delegations to the lake that year to kick off what has become a decades-long mission.
Since that first summit, we’ve worked across state borders and in coordination with private industry to form a public-private partnership I call “Team Tahoe.” Lake Tahoe is a great example of how aggressive conservation measures, strict planning and strong cooperation between all levels of government and the private sector can successfully protect our natural treasures for future generations.
In 1968, when measurements were first taken, water clarity was 102 feet, far better than we’ve seen in recent decades. Human-caused pollution and sedimentation has led to record lows of visibility. Now, climate change exacerbates various factors to further degrade water clarity.
While clarity continues to decline, the rate has slowed in recent years thanks to the work of Team Tahoe. In fact, recent data shows that Tahoe’s clarity is much better than the long-term trend would have predicted. However, clarity levels in the summer still hover around the 67-foot mark, a sign of how much work we still have to do.
In 2000, Congress passed the first Lake Tahoe Restoration Act, which allocated $900 million to begin a 10-year clean-up effort. Then in 2016 we passed a new bill authorizing an additional $415 million.
These funding streams, along with additional money from state and local governments and the private sector, have showed some concrete results.
We’ve also gone a long way toward preventing invasive species from damaging the lake’s ecosystem and surrounding economies. Lake Tahoe serves as a wonderful home for recreational activities, but that’s all threatened when boats from other parts of the country bring non-native species into Lake Tahoe.
Quagga mussels, zebra mussels and Asian clams are among the most destructive invasive species in Tahoe, damaging infrastructure such as water pipes, canals, aqueducts and dams. As part of the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act, we secured $45 million for lake-wide invasive species control and watercraft inspection programs to help stem the spread of these mussels and clams.
It’s because of these efforts that no new invasive species have been found in Tahoe’s water since 2008.
Of course, the Tahoe Basin is about much more than just the lake. The surrounding Sierra Nevada forests provide recreational activities year round and are home to many native species and plants.
But these forests are also at risk to wildfire, particular as the climate warms. We all remember the 2007 Angora Fire, which burned more than 3,000 acres and destroyed 280 structures. That’s why I’ve dedicated much of my time to improving the region’s firefighting capabilities. In 2019 we secured the transfer of seven C-130 firefighting airplanes from the federal government to CalFire, creating the largest aerial firefighting fleet in the world.
Over the last 20 years, we’ve had tremendous success in bringing Tahoe back from the brink of environmental collapse and retain its unique character. But there’s still much more work to be done. Lake clarity has dropped around 30 feet over the last 40 years. Invasive species are still not fully eradicated. And climate change poses existential threats to the basin, causing the water and air temperature to warm at alarming rates.
We need to continue our investment in the Tahoe Basin and support the wonderful partnership we’ve developed. I want the beauty of this wonderful lake to be around for many generations to come, and I know Team Tahoe will play a big part in that effort.
Dianne Feinstein is a U.S. Senator from California.
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