By Joanne S. Marchetta
Seeing blossoms and sprouts in the midst of a spring snowstorm is yet another of nature’s miracles that makes the arrival of Earth Day in the mountains so fitting. In these moments, Lake Tahoe’s ecosystem puts its flexibility and resilience on full display. At the landscape scale, Tahoe’s resilience and readiness for change is found by scaling up and looking from above at the deep web of related actions that are no less extraordinary.
At the landscape scale, resilience and readiness rely equally on a healthy environment, economy, and communities. This is the triple bottom line mindset behind most sustainability initiatives and the holistic mindset that underpins the recently released Tahoe Climate Resilience Action Strategy. As environmental threats and solutions have evolved over time, Earth Day has also become an opportunity to learn and evaluate what actions are needed most.
Now, more than 50 years after creating the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) and celebrating the first Earth Day, we’re taking stock of where we’ve been. As people across the globe began embracing natural resource conservation in the late 1960s, scientists at Tahoe began sounding the alarm that unchecked development and a lack of environmental protections were driving down the lake’s world-famous clarity and threatening environmental quality everywhere. In 1969, the year of the first international Earth Day, the states of California and Nevada created TRPA as the nation’s first bi-state regional environmental planning agency. The agency was charged with conserving open space, managing development, and unifying environmental strategies across the watershed through the Lake Tahoe Regional Plan.
Some Earth Days later, the Regional Plan had succeeded in halting harmful practices and ensuring new development and redevelopment would be held to high standards. The plan set science-based strategies for nearly every element of Tahoe’s ecosystem—from fisheries to forests. To ramp up public and private restoration, TRPA and many partners helped form the Lake Tahoe Environmental Improvement Program, or EIP, which to date has brought more than $2.6 billion in investments to Tahoe’s water quality infrastructure, forest resilience projects, aquatic invasive species protection, and more. By the 2000s, these regional programs were helping gain the upper hand on water quality as we saw lake clarity stabilize for the first time in more than 30 years.
Yet the Tahoe Region remains at risk from outdated legacy development of decades past. Older homes and businesses need to be upgraded with stormwater Best Management Practices (BMPs) and improved energy efficiency. Communities need greater access to equitable housing, transportation, and jobs. Significant investment is also needed to make Tahoe’s aging infrastructure resilient in the face of extreme weather and other climate impacts. TRPA’s original growth management and building guidelines were unintentionally deterring people from making critical investments.
TRPA realized in recent decades the agency must keep up and adapt by addressing the interconnectedness of the region’s economy, environment, and communities. TRPA made a critical shift with the broadly supported 2012 Regional Plan Update. Now the concept of environmentally beneficial redevelopment takes center stage. In the updated plan, homeowners have access to incentives such as additional land coverage for an efficient building envelope when they install erosion control and stormwater measures, and access to streamlined permitting processes through local building departments.
Larger environmental redevelopment projects can receive incentives when they replace blighted buildings, restore sensitive land, add environmentally sensitive infrastructure, and focus development in town centers that are walkable, bikeable, and close to transit. An example that delivers on all of these is the long-awaited Tahoe City Lodge project which could be completed next year. In addition to those benefits, the project will use the latest green building technology, create 300 construction jobs, and 75 ongoing jobs after completion. These types of projects work for the local economy and the community, and their environmental benefits improve climate resilience. Our basin-wide Environmental Improvement Program also plays a role. A recent study showed that the program has generated roughly 1,700 jobs per year over the last two decades while at the same time protecting our mountain streams and forests, and building nearly 200 miles of walking and biking trails.
By taking the time to understand the interconnectedness and benefits of the actions needed to protect and restore this magnificent watershed, we can build resilience at every level and be ready for future challenges. I encourage you to celebrate Earth Day this weekend and every day –learn more at the Take Care Tahoe website – takecaretahoe.org/earthweek2022.
–Joanne S. Marchetta is the Executive Director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency