South Lake resident continues to fight Tahoe Conservancy, still wants to see project success

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – The South Lake Tahoe resident who alleges his home was damaged by flooding caused by a California Tahoe Conservancy hopes the lawsuit he filed against the agency is quickly and peacefully wrapped up.

The Conservancy acquired the Upper Truckee Marsh land between the Tahoe Keys and the Al Tahoe Neighborhood in the 1980s, although work didn’t begin on the project until the 2000s.

The project ramped up in 2021 to dig new waterways through the marsh, place check dams along the waterways and put more water flow into Trout Creek. The goal of this work is to rewet the marshland so it can act as a natural filter for water flowing into Lake Tahoe, helping to increase lake clarity.

Resident Damian Sowers grew up in the Al Tahoe home that abuts the marsh. He purchased the home from his parents in 2020.

In the lawsuit Sowers filed against the Conservancy in June 2023, he said his house came within an inch of flooding during a minor storm in 2021 shortly after they installed the 31 check dams, thus it was obvious to him the project was putting his house at risk.

During the historic winter of 2022/23, Sowers’ home completely flooded. Video footage Sowers took of the flooding showed about three feet of standing water in his house.

He told the Tribune, sandbags weren’t able to prevent water from coming in and once it entered the house, it stayed there for many months.

Damian Sowers stands in his flooded house.
Provided / Damian Sowers

Because his house had sitting water for so long, it was no longer habitable for Sowers. He rented a second home and this summer, he embarked on a half million dollar project to lift his house and raise the foundation five feet.

While there is no dispute that Sowers’ home was severely damaged last winter, the crux of the lawsuit comes from whether the Conservancy’s project was the cause of the flooding that damaged his home.

While the Conservancy can’t comment on active litigation, a representative told the Tribune, “We cannot speak to the duration and severity of historical floods, but we’re aware there has been flooding in neighborhoods surrounding the Upper Truckee Marsh for decades. What sets last winter apart is the extreme weather: nine “atmospheric river” storm systems, including two that dumped considerable rain on top of the snowpack, along with a record snowpack and some of the coldest average temperatures in decades, which kept snow from melting well until later in the year.”

On the other hand, Sowers points to the Conservancy project for the flooding.

Damian Sowers stands below his lifted house.
Laney Griffo / Tahoe Daily Tribune

“What sets last winter apart is the 31 check dams blocking every exit channel in the marsh. Ice built up behind these dams and the marsh became plugged up like a bathtub. We’ve had numerous extreme winters before. The winter of 2011 was the 4th snowiest on record and also one of the coldest and there wasn’t any water threatening my house that year,” Sowers said.

Sowers said he attempted to work with Conservancy staff for over a year before filing the lawsuit. He added that he’s an environmentalist at heart and the issue is with the project itself.

“I’m imploring the Conservancy board to do the ethical thing in this situation and not force this into a multi-year court battle. I want the Conservancy to be successful with their restoration efforts still, but the project needs to be modified so that more homes aren’t lost, and the damage already caused to locals needs to be properly mitigated,” Sowers said.

While the Conservancy has not spoken directly about Sowers’ home, they do maintain the project is not responsible for any flooding in that area.

“Conservancy staff have closely monitored the issues at the Marsh and have seen no evidence that the restoration project at the Marsh caused flooding along the neighborhood,” said the Conservancy.

Steven Goldman, a former 20+ year Program Manager for the Conservancy who worked on the beginning stages of the project has spoken out in Sowers’ defense. “The reason we didn’t implement the project was because there were people’s houses around the property,” Goldman said.

In a letter Goldman sent to California’s Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot he said, “Conservancy staff and their consultants have blamed the flooding on an “atmospheric river” of precipitation that occurred last winter and on the presence of beaver dams. I do not believe, however, that these arguments have merit in part because of the following facts: while there were some large storms last winter, these storms were smaller in magnitude than major storms in past years that did not cause flooding of Mr.Sowers’ home.”

The Tribune toured Sowers property in the beginning of September and marsh water still comes up to Sowers’ deck, leading him to believe his property will flood again this winter, adding that it’s changed the floodplain in the area.

Water still comes up to Sowers’ deck.
Laney Griffo / Tahoe Daily Tribune

Sowers told the Tribune that the Conservancy’s “worse case” flood projections for this project was +0.10 feet added to the 100-year flood elevation at El Dorado Avenue.

“This March, the water was 2 feet above the 100-year flood elevation, which is 20x their projection. Additionally, the marsh water level was above the 100-year flood elevation for seven months straight and it’s currently sitting right at the 100-year level in the dry season, two dry seasons in a row. Flood waters that don’t recede don’t really qualify as flood waters anymore. It’s a permanent environmental change,” Sowers said.

Conservancy staff said they are “collecting data and continuing our monitoring, and we’re doing our best to figure out how climate change and extreme weather are affecting the watershed and these systems.”

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