By Mark Bruce and Cindy Gustafson
Twenty-five years ago, national, state, and local leaders gathered on the shores of Lake Tahoe for the first Lake Tahoe Summit to form a partnership for the protection and restoration of a national treasure. As this major milestone in Lake Tahoe’s restoration approaches, the Tahoe Region can look back on significant environmental improvements from one of the most comprehensive watershed conservation programs in the nation.
The 1997 inaugural Summit launched the Lake Tahoe Environmental Improvement Program (EIP). Following the passage of the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act in 2000, local, state, and federal government agencies, private entities, scientists, and the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California came together under the EIP to restore the environmental health of Lake Tahoe. Since then, the program has invested more than $2.6 billion in state, federal, local, and private funding to complete over 700 projects benefitting Lake Tahoe’s environment and communities.
Next week, the 25th annual Lake Tahoe Summit will be held virtually to recognize the EIP’s extraordinary progress while also looking to the strength of the partnership to confront the unrelenting challenges ahead.
The EIP was formed to repair environmental mistakes of the past. Clear-cut logging, grazing practices, major road construction, and the frenzied building boom of the mid-20th century left Tahoe with a legacy of harm. Impaired water clarity, unhealthy and overstocked forests, sprawling development, and a car-centric transportation system were among the problems that had become too big for land managers and local governments to solve on their own. Seeing an “environmental emergency,” then-Nevada U.S. Senator Harry Reid and California U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein joined others in calling for a presidential summit for Lake Tahoe in 1997. The summit turned a national spotlight on Tahoe and lowered the walls between agencies to create a sense of shared stewardship.
Today, EIP projects have steadily begun to create a new legacy for Tahoe. There are bike trails, bike lanes, and transit infrastructure. There are meandering streams, lush meadows, and healthier forests. There are also storm drains and rock-lined roadsides critical to maintain Tahoe’s world-renowned water clarity, and vast areas of publicly owned land that were once private. The work is far from over, but the partnership is making substantial progress in unprecedented ways.
Together we are working to regain Tahoe’s famed water clarity. Through the partnership, 830 miles of roadway and 20,000 private properties in the watershed have been retrofitted for pollutant reduction and more than 1,000 acres of stream zones have been restored or enhanced.
As record high temperatures and massive wildfires sweep across the West, Tahoe’s forests remain a high priority for improving Tahoe’s climate resilience. Over the last 25 years, EIP partners have treated or thinned an incredible 87,500 acres of forest and conducted defensible space inspections on just over 21,000 private parcels. Future forest health projects like the 59,000-acre Lake Tahoe West Restoration Partnership will scale the work up to larger areas and combine water quality and habitat goals to increase regional forest resiliency.
Tahoe’s roads and town centers were designed during the heyday of car travel, leaving a disconnected and outmoded transportation network. To reduce reliance on the private automobile, 195 miles of bike and pedestrian trails have been created or improved and the partnership has brought in millions of dollars to fund transportation projects. As the region experiences the most rapid increase in visitation since the 1960 winter Olympics, the EIP can help bring reliable transit options and parking management to our busiest recreation corridors.
Much of Lake Tahoe’s landscape has been preserved from private development. Whereas once 70 percent of the Tahoe watershed was publicly owned, today the number has risen to nearly 90 percent and within that, 3,100 feet of shoreline has been purchased for added public access. This conservation practice helped stop urban sprawl in the basin and has opened up more wildlife habitat and recreation opportunities for all.
The establishment of the EIP 25 years ago brightened Tahoe’s horizon. With the hard work and commitment of many, the program has substantially delivered on its goals while becoming a model of landscape-scale conservation and collaboration for others. Today, the EIP continues to play a critical role in Tahoe’s future. The intensifying threats of aquatic invasive species and climate change, along with increasing pressure from outdoor recreation and tourism are challenges too daunting for any of us to solve on our own. We invite you to join us in honoring the accomplishments of the EIP’s first 25 years and to help strengthen the commitment to continuing Lake Tahoe’s restoration.
The Tahoe Summit will be streamed live on August 19 from 10 a.m. to Noon. You can register to view the event at takecaretahoe.org/events/25th-annual-tahoe-summit-virtual/
–Mark Bruce is Chair of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency Governing Board. Cindy Gustafson is Governing Board Vice-Chair and District 5 Supervisor for Placer County.