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Troubles at Tahoe: Water, Air and Traffic

May 12, 1985|Bill Stall | Bill Stall is a Times editorial writer

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, CALIF. — In the pure sense, pristine Lake Tahoe no longer is pristine. Strings of moss and algae cling now to rocks and piers. During frequent traffic jams, the air around the casino district at Stateline, Nev., can be as polluted as in Los Angeles.

The hotel-casinos stand as high-rise monuments to the questionable side of a free-market economy. Jet noise reverberates from mountain to mountain as corporate and commercial craft fly in and out of the Tahoe airport. There are more than 250 motels on the California side of the south shore, often lending new meaning to the word tacky.

Still, the Lake Tahoe basin is a special national asset that not only is worth preserving in some semblance of its pristine past, but capable of rejuvenation as a world-class resort to be enjoyed by people of virtually any income bracket.

After all the years of crisis and hand wringing over Lake Tahoe, there is some good news. The congressionally sanctioned California-Nevada effort to control development in the 500-square-mile alpine basin has worked. As rancorous as the process has been, Lake Tahoe is a far better place than it would have been absent the bistate Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.

Skyscraper casino construction has been halted. The treated sewage effluent that once contributed to the destructive greening of Lake Tahoe's blue waters now is shipped outside the basin. Without TRPA's planning controls, there would likely be much more gaudy construction along U.S. 50. The haze of air pollution still settles at times over the 12-by-25-mile lake at 6,225 feet above sea level, but it would have been much worse had 50 been turned into a freeway years ago.

Although the water quality of the lake has declined, it is still remarkably clear.

It would be premature, however, to declare Lake Tahoe "saved." Recent events demonstrated that a constant struggle is required to maintain a rational balance between preservation of the area's natural beauty and the development desired by those who want to come to the lake to enjoy that beauty.

Part of that struggle was acted out recently at a public hearing of TRPA in the ballroom of the High Sierra Hotel-Casino at Stateline. The agency's 14-member board, seven from Nevada and seven from California, called the meeting to hear comments on a proposed settlement of a lawsuit that has frozen Tahoe planning and construction in place for more than a year. The settlement would make existing moderate Tahoe planning controls significantly stricter.

Although they were present, representatives of the two organizations that brought the lawsuit--the California attorney general's office and the League to Save Lake Tahoe--elected not to testify. This day was set aside to let Tahoe lot owners complain about what the planning process had done to them.

Almost to a man, the witnesses told emotional stories about how they had saved for years to buy a lot, had paid taxes and sewage assessment fees, installed utilities and drafted plans for retirement dream homes. And now, they said, they are told they cannot build on those lots and may never be able to build.

The grievance of a San Francisco woman was not untypical. "You can't tell me my little lot over in California is making any difference with all the casinos and cars over in Nevada," Martha S. Zemanek said. "Six years you've gotten my taxes. I haven't got anything for it. It's not right. You can't do this."

A man told the board, "We saved for 15 years to buy a lot at Lake Tahoe. It was our dream."

Almost universally, the witnesses urged the Nevada Legislature to carry out its threat to withdraw from the two-state agreement and decide on its own controls on its side of the lake. The new Tahoe plan is particularly rigorous when applied to lots on the Nevada side because the lake-front slopes tend to be much steeper than in California. Scientists testified that construction on sloping ground accelerates the degradation of the lake.

Since Tahoe's waters pay no heed to the state line that slices the lake in two, a resumption of heavy development on the Nevada side could negate three decades of conservation effort.

The woman from San Francisco was right. Building her dream house on one lot would not have much effect. But multiply the one by hundreds or thousands and the dream becomes a nightmare. Just during the 1960s, the number of houses in the basin doubled, to more than 20,000.

Construction on land, even away from the lake front, has major impact on the quality of the lake water, according to Charles R. Goldman, a scientist from the University of California at Davis and director of the Tahoe Research Group.

"Removal of the plants and compaction or paving of the soil disrupts the recycling and filtering of nitrogen and greatly accelerates its loss from the soil to the lake through surface runoff and ground water," he said in a 1984 report,

Nitrogen is a major contributor to the algae growth and clouding of the lake through a process known as eutrophication.

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