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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Lake Tahoe

Air Date: Week of

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TOOMEY: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

TOOMEY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Diane Toomey.

CURWOOD: And I'm Steve Curwood. Lake Tahoe is the largest alpine lake in North America. It's right at the border of California and Nevada, and it's so big and so deep that its contents could cover the entire state of California with 14 inches of water. But Lake Tahoe is in trouble and has been for years. President Clinton recently signed a bill pledging $300 million to help clean up the lake. The act marks an end to decades of open warfare between environmental and business groups in the basin. Instead, there's a new collaboration between these same groups to restore what Mark Twain once called, quote, "the fairest pitcher the whole earth affords." Living on Earth's Nathan Johnson reports.

(A bird calls; water splashes)

JOHNSON: Twelve miles wide, 22 miles long, Tahoe is one of the deepest and clearest lakes in the world.


JOHNSON: But the impact of humans is pervasive. The Sierra Club gave up plans to make Tahoe a national park some 80 years ago. They said it was already too spoiled. Environmentalists, ski resorts, and casinos have fought bitterly for decades over whether this ecosystem should be preserved as it is or further developed. But all this is changing.

NASSON: We're coming up here to a site where an old Safeway is being torn down.

JOHNSON: Rochelle Nasson is executive director of the League to Save Lake Tahoe. As we drive along the south shore, she points out old properties, built mostly in the 1960s, before environmental codes were in place.

NASSON: Over there on the right, you see this Swiss Village Motel over here, the yellow and brown motel. This pawn shop here.

JOHNSON: Dozens of these old buildings will be bulldozed to make way for a colossal redevelopment project of upscale hotels, art studios, and a shopping mall. Surprisingly, local environmental groups are supporting the project.

NASSON: What we're going to have at the end, if all promises are kept, we will have an area that has a lot less impact on the lake. Because we'll have water being treated before it runs into the lake.

(Mechanical work)

JOHNSON: A few blocks further along Highway 50 is the cornerstone of this $600 million redevelopment: an expansion of Heavenly Valley Ski Resort, including a two-and-a-half mile gondola stretching from the middle of downtown to the top of the mountain. Stan Hansen is a senior vice president at Heavenly Valley.

HANSEN: It took us ten years to get the project approved, and then we had to build it in six months. We have three distinct general contractors, one at the top doing the top station...

JOHNSON: Environmental groups pushed Heavenly Valley to include water filtration and treatment in the project, because without it snow melt flushes dirt and pollutants directly into the lake. Ultimately, each side had a strong interest in finding a solution.

HANSEN: The environmental community needed us because they needed to generate the revenues to protect the resource. We needed to be able to develop our properties to have a good return on our investment.

JOHNSON: So you both used each other.

HANSEN: You're doggone right. And we used it to benefit the lake.

JOHNSON: President Clinton recognized the historic changes taking place when he visited three years ago.

CLINTON: One of the reasons that I wanted to come here was not only to highlight to the nation the importance of Lake Tahoe but also to show the nation that there is a place where everybody is working together in common cause, recognizing that there cannot be an artificial dividing line between preserving our natural heritage and growing our economy.

JOHNSON: But to get where it is today, Tahoe endured years of legal disputes, and not all legal issues have been settled. Larry Hoffman is a veteran land use attorney and one of the biggest critics of Tahoe's regulatory process.


HOFFMAN: As we walk across through here, you'll see a variety of vegetation. To the agencies, once they see that aspen tree, that's sacrosanct, don't want to touch it.

JOHNSON: Mr. Hoffman has taken me to a small residential lot, formerly owned by a widow, Bernadine Suitham Local regulators told Mrs. Suitham she couldn't build her dream retirement home here because her property was in a stream zone.

HOFFMAN: As you can see, this lot is a typical subdivision lot on a paved street. There is a house on both sides of it. And the only thing that's different about it is that it happens to have some bushes or some shrubs on it that the agencies believe are an indicator of high groundwater. And therefore, they've graded this lot as a stream environment zone lot.

JOHNSON: Mrs. Suitham sued, claiming an unlawful government taking of private property. After ten years of litigation, she accepted a deal from the state of Nevada: $600,000 in return for her property. Because of the settlement, the legal issues were never resolved in court. But a separate takings case, filed in 1984, is still active. And a ruling in favor of the property owners could jeopardize major elements of Tahoe's environmental plan.

HOFFMAN: We're now spooling up to try to take the case to the Supreme Court. And what it involves is the tensions between the Constitution, which says private property shall not be taken for public purposes without just compensation, and TRPA's regulation.

JOHNSON: TRPA stands for Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. The agency has sweeping authority to enforce environmental regulations. For years , the two most powerful business interests here, ski resorts and casinos, challenged its authority.

(Casino noise: beeps, music)

JOHNSON: Steve Teshara is executive director of the Lake Tahoe Gaming Alliance, a group representing the casinos.

TESHARA: It was difficult for most of the businesses in the basin, including the casinos, to accept the whole regulatory structure of TRPA. It was very radical at the time.

JOHNSON: But eventually, businesses began to realize that they, too, have a stake in keeping Tahoe clean.

TESHARA: When I came to the Gaming Alliance in 1991, gaming was in Nevada and in Atlantic City. Now gaming is everywhere, and there are differentiators in business. And our environmental setting is a differentiator for us. This isn't something we have to build or create like they do in Las Vegas and other places. We have it. So why not make sure that in the decades and generations to come, Tahoe has that kind of quality?

(Music, voices, coins clinking)

JOHNSON: So why did it take businesses 15 years to act in their own self-interest? Tim Duane, a professor at UC-Berkeley, has written a book about the Sierra Nevada. The way he explains it, TRPA had the authority to enforce a very strict set of environmental standards. This changed the balance of power between environmentalists and developers.

DUANE: So once that changed, the locals then had an interest in collaboration. But in the absence of that change, we would have seen continued destruction of Tahoe. We would have seen no effort at collaboration. Because the short-term economic benefits were seen as worthwhile. They weren't willing to give something up to save long-term economic and environmental values.

(Water on the shore)

JOHNSON: None of this would have happened if it wasn't for a scientist named Charles Goldman. For decades , no one wanted to believe what he and his team of researchers from UC-Davis were saving about Tahoe's troubles.

(An boat engine starts up)

JOHNSON: Today, aboard his research vessel, he continues to warn that if nothing is done the brilliant blue lake will soon turn a brackish green.

GOLDMAN: I think, in a way, it's like feeding a man arsenic. The lake looks beautiful for a long time, but eventually you kill him. What this lake has been getting is essentially small doses of nutrient pollution for about five decades now.

JOHNSON: Tahoe plans to spend $900 million on all kinds of restoration projects. Natural wetlands, road retrofits, and the like. For the first time, Dr. Goldman is optimistic.

GOLDMAN: I think if everything is done that needs to be done, and that the funds from both the state, the federal government, and the private sector, come, we estimate it's about a billion dollar job. Then the lake can actually be saved.

(Boat engine turns off)

JOHNSON: There is still some debate about exactly how to spend this money. But as people come to understand their impact on the watershed, a new environmental ethic is taking shape. The people who live here are beginning to define what it really means to live as part of the landscape, rather than isolated from it.

(Water on shore)

JOHNSON: For Living on Earth, this is Nathan Johnson in South Lake Tahoe.

CURWOOD: Your comments on our program are always welcome. Call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. Our e-mail address is letters@loe.org. Once again, letters@loe.org. CDs, tapes, and transcripts are $15.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to sustain human well-being through biological diversity: www.wajones.org; the Ford Foundation; the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund; and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation;

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

TOOMEY: And I'm Diane Toomey. And this is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: When we return: A mystery solved. Why all the fish in a Florida stream look like males. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood

TOOMEY: And I'm Diane Toomey.

(Horn, drumming)



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