The bottom line with lake clarity |

The bottom line with lake clarity

John Friedrich

There has been a lot of talk in Tahoe Regional Planning Agency circles about applying a “triple bottom line” test to guide decision making while establishing the new 20-year plan for the Tahoe Basin in the Pathway 2007 process. The idea is that new policies should be set that demonstrate positive benefits to environmental, economic and community quality of life measurements.

This sounds great, as it suggests that we can indeed have it all. But a look beneath the surface reveals that tough choices still need to be made; and all choices need to be made within the limits of how much pollution Lake Tahoe can handle.

On a global scale, problems such as climate change, deforestation and declining fisheries provide evidence that we are using up the environment at a faster pace than it can restore itself. And a healthy economy – today and in the future – cannot be built without the “services” of soil, water, forests, etc.

The idea of operating within limits has been central to the protections established for Lake Tahoe, where there is a widespread agreement that our economy and quality of life depend on the protection of our fragile environment. After all, business people operating in the Basin understand that a murky Lake Tahoe would be very bad for their bottom line. Environmental scientists are currently calculating the nitrogen, phosphorous and fine sediment pollution limits that must be met if Lake Tahoe’s clarity is to be restored.

When Mark Twain first encountered Lake Tahoe and called it “the fairest picture the whole world affords,” he guessed he could see over 100 feet in the lake. This was still possible when the compact that established TRPA was signed in that compact called for the creation of environmental “carrying capacities” and “thresholds” because “the region is experiencing problems of resource use and deficiencies of environmental control.”

Imagine the condition of Lake Tahoe if Basin-wide environmental regulations had not been put in place by TRPA. But despite those protections, the clarity of the lake has declined about 30 feet since the signing of the compact, and only 25 percent of TRPA’s standards are being met in nine environmental threshold areas. Meanwhile, the supply of affordable housing has declined, and locally-owned businesses have had an increasingly difficult time surviving. There is clearly room for improvement on all three bottom lines.

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The challenges facing Tahoe are not unique. In mountain resort towns all over the west there is significant conflict over the scale of development, about who benefits and who doesn’t, about community character and impacts on the environment. The question is whether we can do it differently in Tahoe by developing real sustainable solutions, where our economy and quality of life are improved not by weakening environmental protections, but in relation to the degree we restore Lake Tahoe.

TRPA will be considering three significant policies this year that will offer opportunities to see how Lake Tahoe fares in the “triple bottom line” equation. The first is a new proposal for shorezone development, governing the construction of piers, buoys, ramps and boat slips on the shores of Lake Tahoe. The second is an update of Heavenly Ski Resort’s Master Plan calling for new lifts, runs and lodges. The third is Pathway 2007, in which standards and goals are being updated for TRPA and other agencies in a new 20-year regional plan.

The environmental test for all of these policies will be whether they can be shown to measurably improve Lake Tahoe from current conditions by reducing the amount of pollutants flowing and dropping into Lake Tahoe. To help accomplish this, decision makers should insist that “mitigation” measures be proven to actually work, before they are relied upon to offset the pollution impacts of new developments and other uses of the Tahoe Basin.

Perhaps something should be adopted in the Basin akin to the guiding principle that is drilled into all physicians “Primum, non nocere” (“First of all, do no harm”), so that in 20 years today’s children will be able to say, “Thank you for doing what you needed to do to save this beautiful place.” Too many dollars and dreams have been invested in the health of Lake Tahoe to accept anything less.

Now is an important time for all who want to “Keep Tahoe Blue” to get involved and make your voice heard. TRPA is hosting community visioning meetings around the lake this week as part of the Pathway 2007 20-year planning process. There will be a meeting to discuss public lands at the US Forest Service tonight, March 29, 6-9 p.m. and another focused on South Shore communities Thursday at Lake Tahoe Community College, 6-9 p.m.

The fate of our communities and Lake Tahoe for the next generation is being written as we speak. That’s the real bottom line.

– John Friedrich is program director of the League to Save Lake Tahoe.