California Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation over the weekend that reaffirms the state’s commitment to working with Nevada to preserve Lake Tahoe. Nevada had threatened to quit the bi-state agency that has controlled development around the lake for more than 40 years.

The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA), created by Congress in 1969, reined in rampant development that reduced the lake’s fabled clarity. TRPA determines everything from the number of private residences that can be built (only 130 per year), to the color they can be painted (browns and greens are preferred). Nevada had threatened to pull out of the partnership by 2015, arguing that rules were too stringent and TRPA unresponsive to the needs of developers and homeowners.

Four big casinos in Stateline, Nevada, Harvey’s, Harrah’s, Horizon and MontBleu, are examples of the urban development that coexists with the lake’s natural beauty. (Arwen Curry/KQED)
Four big casinos in Stateline, Nevada, Harvey’s, Harrah’s, Horizon and MontBleu, are examples of the urban development that coexists with the lake’s natural beauty. (Arwen Curry/KQED)

A new regional plan approved by TRPA in 2012 has helped address Nevada’s complaints. The plan gives more control to local governments, allows for higher density of buildings in city centers and encourages developers to buy old buildings in exchange for allowances to expand newer construction.

Old buildings lack modern systems to keep stormwater runoff out of the lake, and are a continuous source of the microscopic dirt particles that scientists have found reduce the lake’s clarity. New construction is required to have modern filtration systems that intercept the flow of sediment on its way to the lake. TRPA also hopes to encourage developers to tear down old buildings and restore them to meadows that can filter storm runoff before it reaches the lake.

Regulators hope the new regional plan for Lake Tahoe will encourage property owners to tear out parking lots near the lake. Hard surfaces allow for dirt to run into the lake and cloud it up.  This parking lot at the Edgewood golf course, in Stateline, Nevada, is already scheduled for removal. (Arwen Curry/KQED)
Regulators hope the new regional plan for Lake Tahoe will encourage property owners to tear out parking lots near the lake. Hard surfaces allow for dirt to run into the lake and cloud it up. This parking lot at the Edgewood golf course, in Stateline, Nevada, is already scheduled for removal. (Arwen Curry/KQED)

But the Sierra Club is dubious about the TRPA’s claims and is suing the agency over the new plan. The environmental group argues that delegating more control to local governments could lead to more construction, which would cause more sediment to flow into the lake.

“Local governments see development as providing the local tax base. And that’s their incentive,” said Laurel Ames of the Sierra Club. “And that’s why local governments should not be in charge of protecting the lake.”

Gov. Brown’s signing of SB 630 follows Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval’s approval of a companion law in June.

A new half-hour documentary by KQED Science explains the science involved in keeping the lake clear, and explores the region’s history and politics. Lake Tahoe: Can We Save It? airs on KQED 9 this Wednesday (10/16), at 7:30 pm. Or watch it here:


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