Tahoe clarity plan passes state

LAKE TAHOE - An unprecedented plan to return Lake Tahoe to historic clarity levels has moved one step closer to reality.

The California State Water Resources Control Board on Tuesday approved the Lake Tahoe Total Maximum Daily Load, sending the plan to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for final approval.

The plan, known as the TMDL, was developed by the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board and the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection to return the lake to 100 feet of clarity within 65 years.

The initial step in the TMDL will require Lake Tahoe Basin counties, road departments and the city of South Lake Tahoe to reduce the amount of fine sediment entering the lake by 32 percent during the next 15 years.

By making the reductions, the lake should reach 78 feet of clarity, about eight feet more than exists today, according to the plan.

"Our goal is to give future generations the opportunity to see for themselves what Mark Twain saw when he said, upon visiting Lake Tahoe for the first time, 'I thought it must surely be the fairest picture the whole world affords,'" said Harold Singer, the Lahontan water board's executive officer, in a statement.

But who will pay for that picture continues to be a concern for basin jurisdictions.

Achieving the fine sediment reductions could cost approximately $100 million per year for the next 15 years, according to rough estimates by the Lahontan water board.

Representatives of Caltrans, South Lake Tahoe, El Dorado County and Placer County each expressed concerns over the cost of the TMDL in letters to the state water board in March.

Ken Grehm, Placer County director for public works, said the future may not resemble the past when it comes to paying for the environmental improvements, noting references to historic funding levels in the plan.

"Current fiscal realities being experienced at all governmental levels, and by all entities involved in Lake Tahoe environmental protection suggest that this and other TMDL implementation actions are overly ambitious," Grehm said. "Historical funding levels are below those needed, and are not likely to increase in today's compromised and struggling economy."

Singer called continued federal, state, local and private funding "critical" to the effort to restore the lake's clarity. The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency has developed a funding strategy that calls for a continued commitment of funding, Singer added.

And, until local jurisdictions submit plans regarding how they will meet the reduction goals in the plan, the true cost of the TMDL is unknown.

The cost could be "much less" than the general estimates given in the TMDL depending on the local plans, according to water board documents.

In November, the board changed its guiding document to require it to consider funding shortfalls while enforcing the TMDL's timeline.

The existing timeline has been criticized by basin environmental groups.

By limiting the scope of alternatives for the TMDL to meeting 100 feet of clarity in 65 years, the state water board did not consider a reasonable range of alternatives under the California Environmental Quality Act, according to the League to Save Lake Tahoe and Tahoe Area Sierra Club in a March 18 letter to the board.

"The League and TASC respectfully request that the State Board not let what should be an opportunity to cure Lake Tahoe's pollution problems become an excuse to prolong that long-standing violation for several generations," according to the letter.

In responding to the comments, the water board said "no information exists, nor was submitted by the League, to develop an implementation plan that achieves the load reductions on a time frame faster than the chosen Alternative."

"If, however, it can be shown that compliance could be achieved in less time than the implementation plan suggests, the Lahontan Water Board could establish permits with a shorter compliance schedule."ꆱ


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