California leaders briefed on Tahoe cleanup strategies

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. - Gov. Gray Davis sent three of his Cabinet members and heads of 19 state departments to Lake Tahoe on Friday for an on-the-lake presentation dealing with the lake's environmental problems.

Jammed inside the stuffy cabin of a tour boat with the blinds drawn, the officials heard a serious message without the distractions of other boaters enjoying a perfect summer day on the scenic mountain lake.

''The reason we are here is because Lake Tahoe is in trouble,'' said Dennis Machida, executive officer of the California Tahoe Conservancy, a state agency that buys and restores land in the basin. ''We are facing a crisis here.''

The crisis, according to the state officials, is that despite 32 years of erosion-control improvements, land-use regulations and pacts between California and Nevada to preserve the lake's transparency, the depth of clarity continues to decline about a foot a year.

And as the lake gets a little greener, the forests get a little grayer from dehydration and insect infestation in a basin too urbanized to allow fire to run its natural course and thin out the wood.

Pollution from cars driven by 23 million annual visitors and 50,000 year-round residents is mainly to blame. The vehicular pollutants end up in the lake along with the runoff of fertilizers, silt and other urban debris. Together they stimulate the growth of algae that cloud the lake.

The latest strategy for restoring the lake, or at least slowing its decline, is a 10-year program of erosion-control improvements and land acquisitions for preservation requiring more than $900 million from state, federal and local governments.

California has fulfilled about 60 percent of its $275 million share. That includes a commitment of $53 million announced Friday by Maria Contreras-Sweet, state secretary of the Business, Transportation and Housing Agency.

Contreras-Sweet said the money will build storm-water collection systems, stabilize slopes and extend bicycle paths along 55 miles of state highways on the California side of the basin.

More immediate improvement, she said, is expected to result from Gov. Davis' order last winter to reduce by more than 50 percent the use of salt and sand on snow-covered highways by the state Department of Transportation.

Other money has gone toward buying up degraded wetlands and erosion-sensitive land to keep sediment from entering the lake and the mouth of the Truckee River.

Also Friday, Winston Hickox, the state secretary for Environmental Protection, announced that levels of the fuel ingredients toluene and MTBE in the lake have declined at least 80 percent this summer as a result of a basin-wide ban on watercraft with fuel-spewing two-cycle engines that was imposed by the bistate Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.

Charles Goldman, a scientist at the University of California, Davis, said Friday's gathering, which included representatives of the Washoe Indian tribe, the state of Nevada and the federal and local governments, was the most impressive show of unity in his 30 years of monitoring the water quality and political battles at the lake.

In addition to the California funds, the Clinton administration is backing a bill in Congress that would commit $300 million in federal funds toward the lake's restoration.

The Nevada Legislature already has funded its $82 million share. The gambling, real estate and tourism industries have put up $40 million, out of $153 million promised. Local governments at Tahoe are about $70 million short of their $100 million pledge.

Altogether, the $900 million program represents a hard-won consensus among developers, lakefront owners, regulators and environmentalists. The years of negotiations were capped two years ago by President Clinton's Tahoe Summit.

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