WASHINGTON — The beloved cobalt-blue beauty of Lake Tahoe, a popular tourist destination on the border between California and Nevada, doesn't come cheaply.
On Thursday, a Senate panel approved a plan to spend an additional $415 million on the lake's restoration over the next decade. The new funding, atop the $1.4 billion spent from combined sources since 1997, would confirm Tahoe as one of the nation's biggest environmental investments.
"Some of these restoration efforts have such a payback," Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer said Thursday. "It is one of the most remarkable lakes."
Boxer is the chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, giving her a prime position to move an ambitious bill introduced along with California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein. The bill's prospects could be further boosted by another well-placed co-sponsor, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Introduced in March, the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act sailed through the Senate committee Thursday on a voice vote after about three minutes of discussion.
Some potential impediments still linger, though, and the bill's long-term fate is uncertain. Similar legislation died in the previous Congress.
Money is one issue. The bill's failure to specify how the additional Lake Tahoe funding will be paid for alarms budget hawks, who eventually could raise even stronger objections in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
"It doesn't have offsets for the $415 million," said Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma.
Inhofe was the sole senator to vote against the bill Thursday. He didn't press his objections aggressively, but in a potential sign of continued negotiations to come, he did secure some revisions. A global-warming skeptic, Inhofe persuaded Boxer to replace references to "changing climatic conditions" with broader references to water conditions.
"It's important to California," Boxer said of the 52-page bill, "and if we had something (similar) in Oklahoma, I would support it."
Backed by environmental groups as well as state and federal agencies, the bill takes note of some Lake Tahoe conditions that have turned for the worse.
The lake's average surface temperature has risen by 1.5 degrees since the 1970s, according to a University of California at Davis study. Twenty-five percent of the trees in the surrounding Lake Tahoe Basin are classified as dead or dying. Declining water clarity shrank lake water visibility from 105 feet in 1967 to 70 feet in 2008.
"This bill gives us the opportunity to continue to confront those challenges and make sure that we do our best to preserve Lake Tahoe for generations to come," Feinstein said when she introduced the bill.
The new funding would support an assortment of projects, from stormwater control in El Dorado and Placer counties in California to watershed restoration along the Truckee River and timber cutting to reduce forest danger.
A comparable House bill hasn't yet been introduced. The conservative House member whose district includes California's share of Lake Tahoe, Republican Rep. Tom McClintock, might have a good position of his own to shape what comes next, as the chairman of the House Water and Power Subcommittee of the Natural Resources Committee.
McClintock couldn't be reached to comment Thursday.
A similar Senate bill introduced in November 2009 likewise passed the committee and then died; a matching House bill that year attracted only six co-sponsors and never even received a hearing.
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