Ultimatum on Lake Tahoe


After years of grumbling, Nevada has thrown down the gauntlet to its neighbor across the deep blue waters of Lake Tahoe.

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval signed legislation last month that amounts to a political ultimatum to California: Make it easier to approve development in the Tahoe basin or the Silver State will pull out of the compact that has tightly regulated land use around the famous mountain lake for decades.

“Every time we’d go before the [compact’s governing board], the votes were always there to destroy what Nevada was doing,” said the bill’s lead sponsor, state Sen. John Lee, a Clark County Democrat who contends California’s members are in thrall to environmentalists. “Nevada is very, very serious.”


The move has heightened the perennial conflicts over Tahoe development, while underscoring the degree to which they have evolved. The fights are no longer primarily about building versus not building; the majority of the basin is public land, and most private parcels are already developed.

These days, the disputes are more about the density and scale of redevelopment.

Mid-century motels and casinos are not the draw they once were. Visits to South Lake Tahoe have been slipping for years. Local officials say the answer is to “rebuild green,” remaking their communities into more attractive resort destinations and using new construction techniques to reduce the sediment runoff that has diminished the lake’s renowned clarity.

“We have got to be able to change the existing development. The question is how,” said Claire Fortier, mayor pro tem of South Lake Tahoe and a Nevada board member for the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, which enforces the compact.

The Nevada challenge comes at a time when environmentalists argue that the planning agency is ignoring its own environmental standards and green-lighting projects that are too big and too dense for the basin.

“It seems as if both sides are moving farther apart,” said Mara Bresnick, a California board member.

The bi-state compact was established by federal legislation in 1969 to protect the lake after years of loosely regulated development had paved over parts of the basin and clouded its stunningly clear waters.


In the early years, it was California, which encompasses two-thirds of the lake, that was unhappy. The state threatened to withdraw because it believed the pact’s environmental safeguards were too lax. “This is a mirror image of what California did in the 1970s,” noted Richard Frank, director of the California Environmental Law & Policy Center at UC Davis. The tactic worked for California, whose governor was then, as now, Jerry Brown. In 1980, the compact was amended to the state’s liking.

Nevada officials insist they don’t want to pull out of the pact, which would leave each state with its own planning agency for its portion of the basin. That “would be chaotic,” said Shelly Aldean, board vice chair and a Carson City, Nev., supervisor. “But Nevada felt it had to do something to bring this to a head.”

The new law calls for amendments that would loosen board voting requirements, effectively making it easier to change the environmental standards that govern development. It also calls for the board to take into consideration the basin’s “changing economic conditions” when it drafts an overdue update to the regional plan. If those conditions are not met by late 2015, Nevada will pull out, although its governor can extend the deadline by two years.

California would have to agree to the amendments, as would Congress, and Frank deems that unlikely. “So the question is, what happens next?” he said. “I think it’s kind of a brinkmanship strategy.”

In making their cases, both sides cite a proposal to tear down the aging Tahoe Biltmore Lodge & Casino on Lake Tahoe’s North Shore and replace it with a mixed-use resort called Boulder Bay. The project, which would include condos, hotel rooms, a casino, spa and park, won board approval in April after four years of planning. Nevada officials say that was far too long and complain that the developer was required to jump through too many bureaucratic hoops.

Byron Sher, a board member and former California state legislator, said he was puzzled by Nevada’s rebellion, given that both Boulder Bay and Sierra Colina Village, another Nevada project, were approved by the board. “There’s no evidence whatsoever that indicates there’s any resistance” to that kind of development, said Sher, who opposed both projects. “I thought it was too big, the density too great to bring that kind [of] development to the North Shore,” he said of Boulder Bay.


Sierra Colina, a 50-unit housing project planned for a wooded site bordering a stream in Stateline, Nev., has been stalled by a lawsuit filed by the League to Save Lake Tahoe, the basin’s leading environmental group and the target of considerable wrath from the Nevada side.

Rochelle Nason, the league’s executive director, said her group doesn’t object to rebuilding the basin’s urban areas with environmentally friendly designs. The problem, she argued, is that developers and the planning agency “would like to make very dramatic changes in how much land coverage, how much paving can occur at Lake Tahoe as well as in changes in height, allowing for taller [buildings] than are currently permitted.”

“It’s not growth. It’s change in form,” said Joanne Marchetta, executive director of the planning agency, disputing Nason.

Underlying the argument is the notion, widely embraced by local officials, that properly designed new development can be an environmental tool to arrest the loss of lake clarity.

Until a decade ago, researchers blamed Tahoe’s growing murkiness on algal growth promoted by nitrates and phosphorus carried into the lake by urban and stream runoff. But scientists now believe a big culprit is fine sediment -- essentially pulverized granitic soil -- that washes into the lake from the basin’s roads, parking lots and urban areas. By incorporating catch basins, wetlands and filtration systems into new construction to capture the sediment, local officials say, they can build their way to a clearer lake.

John Reuter, associate director of UC Davis’ Tahoe Environmental Research Center, said it remains to be seen if that approach will work in an alpine environment of steep slopes periodically swept by flash floods.


“It’s a very interesting concept,” he added. “Before the agencies just approve a lot of new projects with this as the key, it would be nice if we knew more.... They may work. They may not work.”