New development projects key to restoring lake clarity

As we have heard one developer put it, Tahoe has plenty of buildings. The problem, for Lake Tahoe’s environmental health, is some of those buildings are old, dilapidated and lack the means of preventing pollution from running off into the lake. Many were also built in the wrong place — on old streambeds or the wetlands and meadows that once served as natural filters for Lake Tahoe. Others are in dispersed locations far from each other and from where people live and work, requiring more car trips and adding to traffic congestion.

How does this harm Lake Tahoe? Recent scientific studies have found fine sediment, smaller than the width of a human hair, is the No. 1 contributor to clarity loss and the majority of fine sediment pollution comes from roads, parking lots and buildings.

When cars and trucks drive over the road traction abrasives tTahoe agencies apply to provide safe winter traction for drivers, they crush materials into a fine dust — making them the single largest source of fine sediment. When it rains, or the snow melts, fine sediment then washes into the lake, where it remains suspended and degrades the lake’s clarity.

These are complex problems.

When the League to Save Lake Tahoe advocated for Tahoe’s 2012 Regional Plan Update, we had reservations but put our faith in it in part because of a central feature — planning language and incentives to encourage lake-friendly redevelopment in the region’s town centers. Under the updated plan, new projects would help fund the removal of old, lake-harming development and drive environmental restoration on the land left behind.

To restore Lake Tahoe’s clarity to levels experienced before the 1970s, when one could see nearly 100 feet down, we also need to address the traffic that’s not only hurting the lake, but leading to gridlock in our communities. On peak weekends, many locals choose to not even leave their homes. To do this, we need to provide better transportation choices — attractive mass transit and better bike trails and sidewalks — and community planning that puts more of our retail, restaurants, and workplaces within easy walking or biking distance from where visitors stay. This will make it easier for people to get around Tahoe without being forced to drive, which can directly reduce the amount of fine sediment pollution entering the lake from our roads.

What might this kind of balance look like, where good planning helps center redevelopment in our communities, while driving environmental restoration of sensitive lands to help protect Lake Tahoe? One potential example is taking shape on Tahoe’s South Shore, where the City of South Lake Tahoe proposes to redevelop a parcel of land on Highway 50 near the intersection of Ski Run Boulevard. On that parcel, the Knights Inn, its parking lot and a restaurant all sit directly on top of the former path of Bijou Park Creek. This parcel is currently among the greatest contributors of stormwater pollution to a system that drains through nearby Ski Run Marina and into the lake.

The city proposes removal of the parcel’s current buildings and pavement, and the daylighting of Bijou Park Creek, complemented by construction of stormwater management measures that together could greatly reduce fine sediment and pollution that flow from the area. Although the restoration project is to be funded in part by state funds, an influx of private funds from investors initiated the project, which will feature new redevelopment on the remaining pieces of the parcel.

It’s too early to call the Knights Inn’s redevelopment a success for our Regional Plan Update or for Lake Tahoe, but it’s these type of projects the plan envisioned — private redevelopment investment driving the removal of harmful older buildings and parking lots and spurring environmental restoration to help “Keep Tahoe Blue.”

Harmful legacy developments have to be improved if we are to be successful in restoring the lake’s clarity to its historic levels. Redevelopment is one key mechanism to get this job done. We’ll be monitoring the Knights Inn restoration project as it advances, and we will also be scrutinizing the upcoming four-year review of the Regional Plan Update to search for ways to ensure the plan delivers on its promise of environmental restoration around the basin, driven by lake-friendly redevelopment.

Lake Tahoe is too precious to continue to suffer from past mistakes.

Darcie Goodman Collins, Ph.D., is the executive director of the League to Save Lake Tahoe. The League — also known by the slogan “Keep Tahoe Blue” — is Tahoe’s oldest and largest nonprofit environmental advocacy organization, founded in 1957.


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