In West Coast visit, President Obama goes after climate change skeptics, praises efforts to restore Lake Tahoe

Gov. Jerry Brown, left to right, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid and President Barack Obama leave the stage at the 20th annual Lake Tahoe Summit in Lake Tahoe, Nev.
Gov. Jerry Brown, left to right, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid and President Barack Obama leave the stage at the 20th annual Lake Tahoe Summit in Lake Tahoe, Nev.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

At a conservation summit on the southern shore of Lake Tahoe, President Obama on Wednesday pointed to the environmental degradation of the lake’s once-crystal-clear waters as proof of the damage caused by climate change and warned of the threat posed by Republican leaders who continue to deny its existence.

Obama never named Republican members in Congress or GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, who have questioned whether climate change is real and opposed international efforts to address the issue, but the president’s pointed critique left no doubt of his targets.

“The future generations deserve clear water and clean air that will sustain their bodies and sustain their souls — jewels like Lake Tahoe,” Obama told a packed outdoor arena gathered for the 20th annual Lake Tahoe environment summit. “It sure is not going to happen if we pretend a snowball in winter means nothing is wrong. It’s not going to happen if we boast about how we’re going to scrap international treaties, or have elected officials who are alone in the world in denying climate change, or put our energy and environmental policies in the hands of big polluters.”

Obama arrived in Lake Tahoe as the guest of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who helped to kick off the summit 20 years ago when leaders in California and Nevada became alarmed that Lake Tahoe’s legendary clear water was clouding up.

Attended by California Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer as well as Gov. Jerry Brown, Wednesday’s environmental summit also served as a long farewell for Reid, who is retiring after three decades in the Senate.


Obama spoke warmly of Reid’s love for his state’s natural wonders and his tenacity in Washington, crediting him for helping deliver many of his top accomplishments as president.

“Harry is tough,” Obama said. “I believe he’s going to go down as one of the best leaders the Senate has ever had.”

In Nevada, a crucial swing state in the upcoming presidential election and home to a hotly contested Senate race, the two-hour chorus of speeches was laced with the clear message that the environmental priorities championed by Democratic leaders in Washington, California and Nevada were crucial for the nation’s future.

President Clinton attended the first Lake Tahoe summit in 1997, also at the invitation of Reid, bringing national and international attention to the fate of the lake, which is a popular resort area.

Since that summit, about $2 billion has been spent to improve Lake Tahoe’s water quality and for projects to reduce runoff, restore wetlands and restrict development. Thanks to those efforts, scientists say the clarity in the lake has been steadily improving.

“One need only gaze in these emerald blue waters to see the progress we’ve made to keep Tahoe blue,” Reid said.

Feinstein and Boxer also were showered with praise Wednesday for their dedication to environmental protection and, more specifically, their work pushing through legislation in 2000 that provided $300 million in federal funds to restore the lake. Boxer also is retiring after serving for more than two decades in the Senate.

The two California senators have joined with their counterparts in Nevada in an effort to reauthorize the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act, which is still pending in Congress, and provide hundreds of millions of dollars more to protect the lake from pollutants and restore the health of the surrounding forests.

Lake Tahoe straddles the California-Nevada border, and planning and development in the region are controlled principally by a bi-state agency created decades ago by then-Govs. Ronald Reagan and Paul Laxalt.

Brown noted the irony of two Republican governors overcoming their distaste of government to create a new bureaucracy specifically to protect Lake Tahoe.

“Unlike other lakes in the world that become nothing but dumps and dead zones, this is still a pristine wonder,” Brown said. “And the human imagination is so encouraged and nourished by it that Republicans and Democrats actually worked together to do good for Tahoe.”

Combating climate change has become one of Brown’s top political crusades during his final term as California governor, and he used his appearance Wednesday to highlight California’s efforts to slash greenhouse gas emissions and invest in renewable energy.

Last week, California lawmakers approved legislation to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, a stiffer target than is in current law. Brown, who plans to sign the measures, gleefully proclaimed that oil companies and opponents of new environmental regulations were “vanquished.”

Still, Brown said that climate change continues to pose a significant threat in California and worldwide.

Tahoe’s surface water temperature in 2015 was the highest ever recorded. Annual snowfall levels in the nearby mountains have been on a steady decline, reducing the cool snowmelt that streams into the lake and replenishes its oxygen supply, said Geoffrey Schladow, director of the UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center.

The increasing air temperatures in the Lake Tahoe region also have stressed the surrounding forests, causing an alarming increase in tree mortality that could lead to catastrophic wildfires, Schladow said. California officials say the state’s forests are pocked by more than 70 million dead trees, with the southern Sierra Mountains the hardest-hit.

“We’re in the midst of a change. I think it’s fair to say that climate change is the largest factor impacting Lake Tahoe — more than any other factor,” Schladow said. “Maybe this event will spark a resurgence and investment that we need.”

The Lake Tahoe area is home to only about 50,000 full-time residents, but those numbers swell by four times during the height of the summer and winter tourist seasons. That puts more cars on the road, increasing carbon emissions and the pollutants they leave behind.

Obama’s Tahoe appearance was the first leg on a swing through the Pacific and China to address the threats posed by climate change.

Earlier in the day, the White House announced a series of new funding and environmental programs to address the deteriorating health and water quality of Lake Tahoe and the surrounding forests.

The Department of the Interior will provide $29.5 million to reduce dead trees and other hazardous fuels in hopes of improving forest health and decreasing the threat of catastrophic wildfires and the Environmental Protection Agency will provide $230,000 in funds to manage and reduce storm water runoff in the Tahoe region.