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Tahoe Summit Went Virtual, But Still Dove Deep Into the Challenges Facing the Lake

The 2020 Tahoe Summit program was unlike any other. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, today’s program was all virtual. Nonetheless, the speakers and organizers used today’s virtual gathering to highlight both the progress in preserving Lake Tahoe’s natural wonders and the danger that lies ahead if America doesn’t take bolder action soon on climate change.

Here’s what’s been happening at Lake Tahoe while we’ve been staying at home.

Like everywhere else in the world, and especially like everywhere else in America, Lake Tahoe has been struggling with COVID-19. But in recent weeks, the Tahoe region has been flooded by wealthy San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles area locals scooping up vacation homes akin to affluent New Yorkers escaping to the Hamptons to forget about the reality that crashed down on the city. This migration has understandably led to rising tensions among the year-round locals, these vacation home buyers, and local governments.

Beyond COVID-19, the Tahoe region continues to face the long-term challenge of maintaining the near-pristine beauty of the lake and the landscape while the population continues to grow (see above). The Tahoe Basin is under a red flag warning this week due to the ongoing hot and dry conditions that are conducive to wildfires. Less than two weeks ago, a “firenado” erupted in Loyalton, California (about 25 miles northwest of Reno). And now, wildfires are burning across California.

Already, evidence points to climate change as a key factor in these wildfires’ prevalence and severity. Yet while California and Nevada have both taken some climate action in recent years, there’s much more to be done, particularly at the federal level, to address the carbon emissions that cause the climate change that threatens the future of Lake Tahoe… And really, all of humanity.

“Protecting the lake is not only good for the planet, but also for our states’ economies. We must make sure the lake stays protected, healthy, and accessible to all.” 
– U.S. Senator Jacky Rosen
Lake Tahoe, Tahoe Summit
Screenshot by Andrew Davey

U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D) had the unique honor of hosting this year’s all-virtual Tahoe Summit. In her opening remarks, Cortez Masto said, “Resiliency is the key to sustainability, and Lake Tahoe has shown amazing resiliency in the face of climate change.”

Those sentiments were mostly echoed by the other Democratic elected officials who spoke today. U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California), the one Tahoe area Senator who was present for the launch of the first Tahoe Summit in 1997 and who still serves in Congress today, praised the bipartisan and bi-state cooperation that’s led to a total of $790 million in federal funding for Tahoe environmental restoration and infrastructure improvement projects since 1997. But then, she reminded everyone, “Despite the tremendous success of these projects, guess which challenge we still face: climate change. It threatens all our progress.” And a few minutes later, fellow Senator and 2020 Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris (D-California) seconded Feinstein: “Make no mistake: Climate change threatens our future in so many ways.”

Lake Tahoe, Tahoe Summit
Screenshot by Andrew Davey

While the Senators refrained from discussing any specific climate action plans, such as Harris’ running mate Joe Biden’s climate plan or the more ambitious Green New Deal proposals that many of their Congressional colleagues have endorsed, they and Reps. Tom McClintock (R-California), John Garamendi (D-California), and Mark Amodei (R-Carson City) touted more targeted legislation they’ve worked on to address the immediate needs of the Tahoe Basin.

During her presentation to the Tahoe Summit, U.S. Senator Jacky Rosen (D) praised the work that went into the 2016 Lake Tahoe Restoration Act, a ten-year and $410 million program shepherded by Feinstein and now-former Senators Harry Reid (D), Dean Heller (R), and Barbara Boxer (D-California), and she touted another $4 million for Lake Tahoe that went into the most recent federal appropriations bill, along with hers’ and Harris’ Wildfire Defense Act and the Stop the Spread of Invasive Mussels Act that she’s cosponsoring. For Rosen, “Protecting the lake is not only good for the planet, but also for our states’ economies. We must make sure the lake stays protected, healthy, and accessible to all.”

“Humans have taxed Tahoe, but humans have also protected it. […] The future is up to us. Let’s make sure that the clean, blue waters of Tahoe last for another 10,000 years.” 
– U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto
Lake Tahoe, Tahoe Summit
Photo by Andrew Davey

When it came to more specific talk on climate action, Governor Steve Sisolak (D) provided some. Sisolak touted Nevada’s new overall climate initiative, which is the result of 2019’s SB 358 and his own executive actions, along with four watershed improvement projects on the Nevada side and bi-state efforts with California to reduce car emissions by developing cleaner transportation alternatives. Going forward, Sisolak promised, “Climate change will be a central and consistent theme in addressing our challenges in Nevada, including at the Lake Tahoe Basin.”

Later on, the Tahoe Summit program included some remarks from Olympic freestyle skiing gold medalist (2014 and 2018) David Wise, along with a conversation between Cortez Masto and Desert Research Institute hydrologist Monica Arienzo on what we can do to counter the growing evidence of microplastic pollution that’s affecting Lake Tahoe and Lake Mead.

Lake Tahoe, Tahoe Summit
Screenshot by Andrew Davey

During his speech, Wise advised, “Tahoe has been through a lot with climate [change]. Tahoe has gone through a lot of our crap. At a systematic policy level, we have to make changes. We have to do better, and we can do better.” And during her closing remarks, Cortez Masto noted, “Humans have taxed Tahoe, but humans have also protected it. […] The future is up to us. Let’s make sure that the clean, blue waters of Tahoe last for another 10,000 years.”

According to UC Davis’ Tahoe Environmental Research Center, Lake Tahoe’s clarity decreased to an average of 62.7 feet last year, just slightly above 2017’s record low of 60 feet, and climate change is already having effects on the lake’s appearance, regional precipitation, droughts and wildfires (see above), and the overall ecosystem. As Rep. John Garamendi noted during his remarks, “You’ve learned the lesson of working as a community. We need to take that lesson and expand it. We will not save this lake unless we work to save this planet from climate change.”

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