Nearly 1,100 acres of disturbed stream zones have been restored in the Lake Tahoe watershed. The purchase of 31 acres on the Upper Truckee River is expected to surpass the initial goal set more than 40 years ago.


By Julie Regan

You may know that Lake Tahoe’s only outlet is the Truckee River at the historic dam in Tahoe City on the lake’s north shore. Behind the dam and well over a mile above sea level is America’s second deepest lake. Less known is that there are an incredible 63 tributaries feeding into the 190-square-mile lake. For thousands of years, most of these alpine streams meandered through meadows and marshes, the natural filters that helped create one of the clearest lakes in the world. Logging, ranching, and unplanned development severely damaged many of these critical areas, until 1969 when the Lake Tahoe Basin came under the protection of the bi-state Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA).

Since then, environmental agencies have pursued the vision of removing development from sensitive lands and restoring them to a more natural state. That’s why the California Tahoe Conservancy’s recent acquisition of 31 acres along the Upper Truckee River in South Lake Tahoe is a reason to celebrate. State and regional partners have worked for decades to purchase this pivotal piece of property and to add it to the 9,000 private parcels that have been acquired and protected as open space. Today, nearly 90 percent of the land in the Tahoe Basin is publicly managed for restoration, conservation, or recreation.

The $15.6 million purchase shows how environmental improvements and sustainable development are being harmonized in the Tahoe Basin. For decades, mitigation fees collected through the TRPA permit process for redevelopment and construction projects have contributed directly to environmental improvements. TRPA was able to contribute $3.5 million of these funds to the Conservancy’s purchase that represent the contributions of many private landowners. Mitigation funds have also helped the Nevada Division of State Lands to make similarly large acquisitions and to remove more than 600,000 square feet of impervious land coverage located in sensitive lands.

The Motel 6 acquisition and restoration will restore the natural pollution filters back to this section of the Upper Truckee River and tie into rehabilitation projects on hundreds of acres north and south of the site.

A cornerstone of TRPA’s Regional Plan is to address the impacts of homes, businesses, and roadways that were established before today’s growth management system and water quality protections. The vast majority of Lake Tahoe’s development happened before it was fully understood how its legendary clarity could be affected. The basin’s marshes and meadows were damaged or destroyed by various uses, causing erosion while also robbing these areas of their ability to filter runoff. Further upland, stormwater tainted by sediment and contaminants from parking lots, pavement, and rooftops flowed unfiltered into the lake.

Although in the 1980s TRPA capped the amount of future development in the basin and set high environmental standards for new construction, the depth of the lake’s clarity continued to decline by about a foot per year. Within the other 10 percent of the watershed, owners of older properties were finding it impossible to remodel, expand, or renovate under the many restrictions while also investing in stormwater improvements and environmental mitigation fees. Major improvements were needed from the public and private sectors to reverse not just water quality impacts, but to improve forest health, transportation, recreation, scenic resources, and more.

The Lake Tahoe Environmental Improvement Program, or EIP, began addressing this challenge in 1997. Under the program, more than 20,000 property owners, from cabins to casinos, have completed stormwater and erosion control measures. Public agencies have updated 840 miles of roadway to control erosion and stormwater pollution. Thanks to land acquisitions and public and private restoration projects, the longstanding goal of restoring 1,100 acres of stream zones has nearly been achieved and TRPA is working with science partners to set a new target to continue wetland restoration.

TRPA and our EIP partners will continue seeking restoration opportunities, yet we must also recognize that well-planned redevelopment can be used for good. Incentives added to the Regional Plan in 2012 allow property owners in Tahoe’s town centers to purchase development rights from restoration projects like the Motel 6 acquisition and use them for affordable housing and other kinds of projects. When existing development rights are transferred into town centers, they improve walkability, reduce traffic, make our towns more vibrant, and give property owners the financial security to install stormwater improvements.

When we take in all that Tahoe has to offer, it is important to see its environmental qualities as well as the public-private partnerships at work. Unlike a national park or wilderness area, it takes innovative policies to preserve the watershed and address past harms while revitalizing communities. Lake Tahoe can serve as a model for other regions seeking to harmonize the natural and built environments. As we have proven over the decades, they can go hand in hand.

Julie Regan is Executive Director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.