Lake Tahoe is one of the most beautiful spots in the world but 50 years ago, it was facing major threats. Ski resorts and casinos brought glitz and glamour, but also an onslaught of development. Most of the construction was done with little thought about the environment. Lake Tahoe depends on surrounding streams and wetlands to filter water. Half those wetlands were covered with buildings and a freeway was planned to circle the lake. "There was a proposal in the 50s and 60s to have a city as large as San Francisco here at the lake," says Julie Regan with the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.
However, in 1969, President Richard Nixon signed a historic agreement called the "Tahoe Compact." California and Nevada agreed to caps on development and created the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency with a governing board from both states. "Really, there's nowhere else in America that has the kind of protection that we have here in Tahoe," Regan says. But now, that agreement is in trouble.
Nevada officials accuse California environmentalists of endangering Lake Tahoe. Kelly Kite says they "loving it to death, protecting it to the point where you can't bring in new environmentally-sound projects." Many Nevada legislators say it is just too hard to get new development approved, even proposals they believe are good for the lake. On top of that, they say Tahoe needs new business because competition from Indian casinos has devastated the economy.
So, Nevada passed a bill giving California an ultimatum: Change the compact or we're out. "It was our way of sending a message to them that hey, we want to talk about this stuff," John Lee says. The proposed changes would make it easier to get developments built. The top man in California's Senate is not happy. He sent a letter to Nevada calling their move "inflammatory and deeply counter-productive."Hopefully we can hear their concerns, but make it clear that we are going to protect the pristine environment of Lake Tahoe," Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg says.
Nevada also wants to speed up approval of a regional plan with new standards for re-development. That is on track to be finished by the end of this year, but the environmental group "League To Save Lake Tahoe" does not like the proposals. "We see, right now, a regional plan that's going to increase traffic. It's going to decrease a lot of the scenic beauty at Tahoe through certain corridors. It's going to increase the height and scale of buildings," Carl Young says.
Both sides do agree the aging motels, parking lots and roads need to be replaced. They are blamed for creating fine sediment and pollution that wash into the lake and cloud the famous blue water. A new resort called "Boulder Bay" has been approved. It will replace the outdated Biltmore Hotel on the North Shore. "We project greater than 90 percent reduction in sediment flow into the lake off this property," developer Roger Wittenberg says.
Some neighbors and environmentalists fought the resort saying it is too big for the area, but this is the kind of change others at Tahoe want to see. They complain the environmental review takes so long that other developers are just giving up. "It was so expensive and took so long to get the process through that they just went away," Kite says.
While California and Nevada fight over the future, the agency in charge of development is walking a tightrope, but the executive director says she is confident the states will find compromise. "Actually, we're making very good progress. We have real momentum that we haven't had in a number of years," says TRPA Executive Director Joanne Marchetta.
Amid all of this arguing, a new test of Tahoe's famous water clarity has just come out. You can now see about 70 feet below the surface, but the goal is to restore visibility to about 100 feet and that is still a long way off.
Written and produced by Jennifer Olney