After seeing the fragile treasures of Lake Tahoe up close, President Clinton pledged Saturday to more than double the federal financial commitment to improving the environment of the basin.
Federal aid will grow by $26.6 million over two years, to a total of about $50 million, to boost local and state efforts to clear up the ever-murkier water of the lake, restore pine forests and make other improvements to protect an environment degraded by the tremendous popularity of the majestic area.
“We don’t have an unlimited amount of time,” Clinton said during a two-hour “Lake Tahoe Presidential Forum” at a resort hotel on the lake shore. “We have to keep intensifying our efforts.”
Although waters in the 1,600-foot deep lake are clear enough to see a white dinner plate 70 feet deep, pollutants have degraded conditions in recent years, with visibility diminishing at a rate of more than a foot a year. Scientists have warned that the decline could be irreversible if allowed to continue for another decade.
The threat the environmental degradation poses to the local economy - as well as to the glorious scenery - has spurred an unusual coalition of businesses, environmentalists and local and state government agencies in California and Nevada.
Clinton applauded their effort as “an outstanding model for the work we have to do to protect all kinds of national treasures and deal with all kinds of environmental challenges in the new economy.”
The president said other communities should take heed of the lesson learned in the Lake Tahoe region: that the environment and the economy are intertwined.
The federal government, which owns three-quarters of the land in the mountain-rimmed basin, is spending about $12 million a year to help restore the environment of an area visited by as many as 300,000 people a day. Experts involved in the effort estimate that $700 million to $1 billion is needed in the coming decade or two to preserve and restore conditions, and California and Nevada have asked the federal government to cover $300 million of that cost.
White House officials said the new federal money will help fight erosion, restore water quality, revive forests and reduce traffic congestion by improving mass transit.
The uses of the additional federal money include:
$7 million to help build a sewage pipeline to replace a deteriorating conduit that is leaking wastes into the lake.
$880,000 as a grant to the University of California, Davis for new computer modeling tools to evaluate the benefit of various water quality improvement programs.
$1.5 million to build a park-and-ride lot in Tahoe City, where visitors can catch shuttles to points of interest. Additional federal funding will help develop a mass transit system to cut down on the traffic congestion and emissions from cars.
$2 million, spread over five years, to clear brush and deadwood from federally owned land.
The U.S. Forest Service will use controlled fires to burn about 1,000 forest acres per year, helping to return natural ecological processes to Tahoe’s forests.
“Perhaps Smokey the Bear was a bit too successful,” said Katie McGinty, chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. “There is a role for natural fire systems to minimize the possibility of catastrophic fire.”
To curtail harmful runoff into the lake from old logging roads, the Forest Service will eliminate 29 miles of roads each year. At that rate, all old logging roads should be gone within a decade.
Another initiative announced Saturday was an agreement to give the Washoe, a tribe native to the Tahoe Basin, unimpeded access to the lake and the use of other land in the basin for the first time in more than 100 years.
The Forest Service has agreed to provide three plots of land to the tribe - one to build a cultural center, a second to cultivate traditional medicinal herbs and a third to give tribe members access to the lake to use as they like.