Tahoe rules: Area is one of most-regulated in country
November 1, 2005
There’s a lot of things you can’t do in Tahoe.
From heating your house, to parking on dirt or watering your lawn, many believe there are more rules per square foot than anywhere else.
“The Tahoe basin is arguably the most heavily regulated area for its size in the United States,” said Rex Norman, spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service in Tahoe. “And those regulations are here for very good reason.”
While everyday folk here might feel over-ruled, regulations often have roots in state and federal laws like the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act that came to be through the democratic process.
“They are there so we can maintain a certain quality of life,” said Paul Sciuto, assistant manager of South Tahoe Public Utility District.
The district, Forest Service, Tahoe’s planning agency, the water quality board, even local governments, all have hefty laws to follow.
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“The Tahoe Basin makes the Coastal Commission look like Boy Scouts,” said Dennis Cocking, spokesman for the utility district. “If someone can find a more regulatory-rich place in the country, I’d like to hear about it.”
A Forest Service controlled burn in the North Upper Truckee area last week had residents on edge, but the agency must do these projects to comply with targets set by Congress to reduce wildfire risk, Norman said.
The agency pays close attention to several acts of Congress, including the Endangered Species Act, Wilderness Act and laws requiring environmental impact statements like the National Environmental Policy Act.
“If property owners complain about the complexity of their permits, they should try doing NEPA documents and environmental impact statements and holding public meetings,” Norman said. “They actually have it really good.”
During a debate this summer about whether to restrict boating in Emerald Bay, many learned for the first time about Lake Tahoe’s unique status under the Clean Water Act. That name is a mouthful: Outstanding National Resource Water.
That status says if you’ve got a good thing, you ought to keep it that way, said Lauri Kemper, division manager at Lahontan Water Board, which regulates water quality at Lake Tahoe.
Lake Tahoe and many of its tributaries are unique because they exceed drinking water standards, and ONRW requires they not be degraded, Kemper said.
Many of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency’s rules are mandated by its compact, a 20-page document outlining environmental standards it must meet to protect Lake Tahoe.
It was no small feat to create the TRPA. It took an act of Congress, after passing through legislatures in both California and Nevada. President Richard Nixon signed the bi-state compact into law; President Jimmy Carter amended it.
“Sometimes we forget, there are reasons for the rules we have,” said TRPA spokeswoman Julie Regan.
Many wouldn’t guess Lake Tahoe is on a list of “impaired” waters because it is not meeting clarity standards.
Some grumbled about a large erosion control project in Sierra Tract this summer because boulders were used to prevent roadside dirt parking. The TRPA limits development, and restricts parking to paved areas, because the agency itself must meet strict standards of the Clean Water Act by reducing soil erosion.
As we head into a winter with inevitably higher natural gas bills, some hope heating with wood might be cheaper. But wood stoves that do not meet air quality standards are prohibited by TRPA. Air pollution is a major factor in Lake Tahoe’s declining clarity, scientists have found.
Then there’s permanent watering restrictions by South Shore’s utility district.
That all goes back to a California law: the Porter-Cologne Act, a 120-page document with three paragraphs telling Lake Tahoe it must export all its wastewater.
It’s too expensive to use water that must meet safe drinking water standards to irrigate lawns every day, spokesman Dennis Cocking said. Things might be different if the district could recycle some of their wastewater to use on lawns, but they can’t.
Businesses and residents are allowed to water only three days a week.
Vision for future
Agency officials expressed hope in the Pathway 2007 process, which will produce a new 20-year plan for the Tahoe area.
All stakeholders are invited to help come up with a vision for how Tahoe should look in the next 20 years and consolidate the mountain of regulations residents and agencies alike must live under.
“In order for that vision to take place, we have to find ways of working together more efficiently,” Norman said, “by getting it done quicker with less regulatory conflict.”