WASHINGTON — Lake Tahoe has friends in high places, like Capitol Hill.
Now, those friendships will be tested again. Even as local, state and federal leaders prepare to convene Monday for the 17th annual Lake Tahoe Summit, Congress is contemplating a proposal to spend an additional $415 million on Tahoe-related projects. The notion could challenge some lawmakers, including the budget-cutting House member who represents the California side of the state-straddling lake.
The new federal funds would come on top of $1.6 billion in public and private spending since 1997, the year then-Vice President Al Gore attended the first Lake Tahoe Summit. Gore will be returning to deliver the keynote address Monday, in what’s certain to include a pitch for continued investment.
“Saving the lake hasn’t been cheap,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., acknowledged in an interview. “I think we’re doing the right thing, but this has cost money.”
Joined by three Senate colleagues, notably including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, which also shares the lake shore, Feinstein this month re-introduced the latest version of the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act. The package follows up on her original Lake Tahoe bill from 2000, which authorized $300 million in federal spending over 10 years.
Though many grand ideas capsize in the Senate, Feinstein’s bill has a strong crew. Its co-authors besides Feinstein and Reid, the top Senate Democrat, include the chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, and a Republican, Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada.
“The reauthorization is extremely important to the restoration and preservation of the Tahoe basin,” Julie Regan, external affairs chief of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, said Friday. “We’ve been very fortunate in having a shared partnership.”
Richard Solbrig, the general manager of the South Tahoe Public Utility District, added Friday that the federal role is key as “almost 80 percent of the land in the Tahoe basin is owned by the federal government.”
Still, an earlier Senate effort to reauthorize Lake Tahoe programs that was introduced in March 2011 stalled after it passed through Boxer’s committee. A 2009 bill authored by Reid likewise sputtered out following committee approval.
One impediment has little to do with Lake Tahoe.
Traditionally, legislation like this gets added to a comprehensive, multi-state public lands package. The last such public lands omnibus bill included some 164 separate measures, including a Feinstein plan to authorize an ambitious San Joaquin River restoration program. The Senate passed it in early 2009.
But that would be only half the battle.
“The biggest challenge we face is in the House,” Feinstein said. “If the House wants to do something constructive, it will.”
The California congressman who represents Lake Tahoe, Republican Rep. Tom McClintock, co-sponsored a Lake Tahoe restoration bill in 2009 when it was introduced by Heller, then in the House. No House bill, though, has been introduced since.
Moving an expensive public lands bill through the Republican-controlled House would test anyone’s legislative skill. McClintock has gotten signal-sending measures through the House, like one that rolled back Feinstein’s San Joaquin River restoration program, but he has had less success in getting bills completed and signed into law. He is also a vocal critic of both environmental regulations and federal spending.
In a July 29 House subcommittee hearing, McClintock characteristically denounced a nationwide watershed protection program as the “fever dream of leftist environmental groups.” Speaking at last year’s Lake Tahoe Summit, he specifically denounced the boards of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency and the Tahoe-area Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board as being overly bureaucratic and slow to approve projects.
“The Tahoe citizens who call my office complain of being thwarted in their attempts to protect their property from fire danger, or to make minor and harmless improvements to their homes, or of being assessed exorbitant fees, or of being denied simple permits by boards they can’t even elect,” McClintock said last year.
McClintock’s office did not respond to multiple queries over the past week. Feinstein and Regan indicated they were not sure if McClintock was going to be in attendance Monday, but Feinstein said “if he’s here, I’ll talk to him.”
More than half of the $415 million in Feinstein’s Lake Tahoe bill would go to stormwater management and watershed restoration projects intended to improve water quality. Another big chunk would pay for “hazardous fuels reduction” projects in the region’s forests to reduce the threat of wildfire. Money would also fund assorted projects, including inspection of watercraft to prevent the introduction of Quagga mussels and other invasive species into the lake.
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