House panel considers $300 million bill to clean up Lake Tahoe

WASHINGTON - South Lake Tahoe has closed one-third of its wells because of contamination from a gasoline additive, and local officials appealed Thursday to Congress for $300 million to prevent that and other pollution from hurting the lake.

The gas additive MTBE is creeping toward the lake at a rate of 9 feet per day, according to Duane Wallace, board member of the South Tahoe Public Utility Department.

The agency already closed a dozen wells because of the contaminant, which smells and tastes like turpentine. But the tiny, tourism-reliant community can't afford to clean the lake and its surroundings on its own.

''I would have liked to have brought a sample of MTBE contaminated water for the record, and invite anyone interested to smell it and drink it, but most likely would not have been allowed on the plane with it,'' said Wallace, who is also executive director of the South Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce.

''Frankly, the longer we wait, the more costly and damaging the MTBE problem becomes,'' he told the House Resources subcommittee on forests.

A bill from Reps. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., and John Doolittle, R-Calif., would authorize $300 million over 10 years to clean up the water, prevent erosion and buy private land to prevent further development.

The Agriculture Department, which oversees the U.S. Forest Service, would distribute the funding to a group of political subdivisions coordinating the cleanup. State and local governments would have to match the federal funding.

An identical bill is pending in the Senate.

While the legislation sets a ceiling for federal funding for Tahoe, Congress still would have to appropriate money for the cleanup project as part of the budget.

Nearly three years after President Clinton pledged $50 million over 10 years to the effort, he offered only $3.65 million in the budget for the year starting Oct. 1. Lawmakers are working to increase that figure.

Given state and local cooperation on the project, Gibbons characterized the lack of federal funding as the biggest obstacle to cleaning up the lake.

''Let's hope the federal government will live up to the commitment,'' Doolittle said.

Part of the argument for federal funding is the lake's national stature.

Sediment and chemicals washing into the basin straddling the Nevada-California border could irrevocably harm the lake within a decade. The lake has been losing clarity at the rate of about a foot a year, according to one study.

''Lake Tahoe, one of the largest, deepest and clearest lakes in the world is recognized nationally and worldwide as a natural resource of special significance,'' said Randy Phillips, deputy chief of the Forest Service. ''However, the clarity of the lake is declining and the water quality of the lake continues to degrade.''


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