Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe facing drought, wildfires, invasive species and global warming

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – Lake Tahoe, a crown jewel of the western landscape, is being challenged by drought, invasive species, the threat of catastrophic wildfire and climate change, officials said Tuesday.

The warning came during an annual summit about protecting the iconic lake that straddles the California-Nevada border. The meeting brought unusual bipartisan consensus among federal lawmakers on at least one aspect of the threats to the Tahoe basin – that more logging should play a role in reducing the wildfire danger.

Those in attendance said decades of suppressing wildfires, no matter how remote, has left many forests too thick with trees, leading to disease and stoking high-intensity wildfires.

“The policy of the last 30 years has failed and failed miserably,” said Republican Rep. Tom McClintock of California.

He told more than 300 participants that revenue from logging could help fund forest improvements.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who convened the 18th annual summit, agreed in a later interview that there are too many regulations preventing the removal of dead, dying and overcrowded trees before and after wildfires strike.

She recalled that what were grassy alpine meadows when she first visited the lake more than 70 years ago are now dense forests.

Feinstein and the other California and Nevada senators are pushing legislation that would provide an additional $415 million in federal money to fight invasive species, address the fire danger and reduce erosion, which clouds a lake famed for its clarity.

Meanwhile, federal and state officials from both states and both political parties signed a proclamation at the summit supporting timber reduction and wildfire prevention efforts near Lake Tahoe.

Governors Jerry Brown of California and Brian Sandoval of Nevada, U.S. Sens. Harry Reid and Dean Heller of Nevada, and Barbara Boxer of California signed the proclamation, as did U.S. Rep. Mark Amodei of Nevada.

Several said the region learned lessons in fire prevention after a wind-driven wildfire destroyed more than 250 homes near the south shore of Lake Tahoe in 2007.

U.S. Rep. John Garamendi, a Democrat from California, was not among the proclamation signers. He said in an interview that logging can play a role, although it is not the panacea.

He faulted Republican leaders in the U.S. House for blocking a proposal that would protect federal money intended for general forest management so that it would not be diverted for firefighting.

Tuesday’s summit was held at the Tallac Historic Site, once a summer retreat for wealthy San Francisco Bay Area families and now a popular area of beaches, bicycle trails and publicly accessible estates administered by the U.S. Forest Service.

With Tahoe behind him, Sandoval, a Republican, told the audience how three years of drought had affected the lake. Lower water levels mean tour boats cannot operate and the shoreline has receded, rendering some docks useless.

The lake’s water level is so low this year that a paddle wheel tour boat ran aground on a sandbar Aug. 4. In addition, the drought puts stress on healthy trees, making them more susceptible to insects, disease and fires, he said.

Participants said conditions have improved around the lake since the summits began, largely because of what Feinstein said was $1.7 billion in federal, state, local and private spending.

When the summits began in 1997, researchers found they could peer 64 feet into the lake, Feinstein said. Now, thanks to programs to control erosion and fire soot, researchers can see to a depth of about 75 feet.

Scientists and lake advocates once thought the key to keeping the lake healthy was to limit development around it, said Tahoe Environmental Research Center Director Geoff Schladow.

“We now know it’s not that simple,” he said.

Climate change and increases in wildfires and invasive species like quagga mussels and Asian clams are as big a challenge, he said.