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Tahoe environmental bill goes to President Clinton

MARY THOMPSON, Sun News Service

In its last legislative hoop before reaching the president, a bill authorizing $300 million for Lake Tahoe environmental improvements was passed unanimously Friday by the U.S. Senate.

Revisions sent the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act back to the Senate, where it was first approved Oct. 5 and then reintroduced and approved a second time Friday after changes were made to fit a House version passed on Oct. 23.

The last-minute changes had some lake advocates, such as the League to Save Lake Tahoe, worried about the tight timeline.

“We were worried that it might not get through before the end of the session but it’s obvious to us and to everybody else that it’s an important enough bill that it got through before the end,” said Heidi Hill Drum, the league’s communications director.

The bill is a key funding source for the $908 million Environmental Improvement Program, a 10-year plan aimed at preventing environmental degradation in and around the lake.

Scientists believe erosion, accelerated by increasing urbanization, is the most threatening element to Lake Tahoe’s fading clarity, which has been declining at a rate of more than a foot each year over the last 30 years.

Keeping the lake blue is also important to area businesses, which depend on the lake’s beauty to attract customers, said Duane Wallace, executive director of the South Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce.

Wallace, who also serves on the South Tahoe Public Utility District board of directors, twice traveled to Washington D.C. to lobby in support of the bill.

“We’ve understood for a long time that it’s the lake that brings people here – not our great hamburgers,” Wallace said.

The bill, introduced by Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Harry Reid, D-Nev., rallied support from all of Lake Tahoe’s representatives.

“We could no longer keep ignoring the warning signs of a lake in decline,” Sen. Richard Bryan, D-Nev., said.

“However, any worthwhile restoration was going to take the committed involvement from the federal government, as well as from the Nevada and California state governments, and this legislation represents the federal government’s first concrete commitment for this plan.”

According to Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., who sponsored the House version, the bill directs the U.S. Forest Service to develop a priority action plan for erosion control and forest health projects. Over 10 years, $200 million would be set aside for these projects to be carried out on federal lands. Another $100 million goes to local governments for their effort in environmental improvement projects.

“The federal government manages 77 percent of the land in the Lake Tahoe Basin, therefore, it has a responsibility for maintaining the health of the lake and surrounding forest,” Doolittle said. “This is a huge step toward improving environmental management in the basin.”

The Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe unit is in the process of compiling the project list. It could be a month before the list is ready for public viewing.

Still, the funding is not guaranteed. Getting the money to Lake Tahoe’s projects would require annual approval in the federal budget.


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