Groups sue over new Tahoe fuel-reduction process
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE – Two environmental groups have sued over a state water board’s move to fulfill recommendations by a special panel created after a 2007 catastrophic wildfire on Lake Tahoe’s south shore.
In their lawsuit filed June 18 in El Dorado Superior Court, Sierra Forest Legacy and the Tahoe Area Sierra Club Group object to a December 2008 memorandum of understanding between the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Board and the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency designed to speed up fuel-reduction projects around Tahoe.
The suit against the water board seeks to overturn the memorandum that made TRPA the primary agency for such project permits. The two-state, land-use regulatory agency is charged with protecting the Sierra Nevada lake.
The groups contend the memorandum violates California laws because it does not include enough detail about how TRPA will regulate potential negative environmental effects from the projects.
The memorandum arose from a recommendation by the California-Nevada Tahoe Basin Fire Commission formed by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons after the fire destroyed 254 homes on Tahoe’s south shore.
Requiring similar permit approvals from both the water board and TRPA made fuel-reduction efforts more expensive and caused delays, according to the commission’s final report.
Attorney Michael Graf, who represents the environmental groups, said there’s no evidence to support the commission’s finding that the dual-permitting process caused delays.
He said the water board’s approval of the memorandum was a result of the “tremendous political pressure to relax, if not eliminate, the environmental controls over fuel-reduction processes” after the fire.
The lack of detail in TRPA’s requirements for fuel-reduction project monitoring opens the Tahoe basin to environmental degradation, Graf added.
“The TRPA code is very vague as to what they’re going to require,” he told the Tahoe Daily Tribune.
While the two agencies’ fuel-reduction project requirements are not identical, the memorandum will still be effective in protecting Tahoe’s water quality, said Harold Singer, executive director of the water board.
Streamlining the permit process was a “significant step” in implementing many of the board’s recommendations, he said.
“We’re not asking (TRPA) to mimic our exact regulatory processes,” Singer said. “What we’re saying is their overall program is equivalent to ours. The real difference of opinion is that the parties that filed the lawsuit feel that it’s not line by line equivalent of ours.”
TRPA spokesman Dennis Oliver said his agency’s code does not contain the same level of details as the water board’s code, but disputes the contention that its monitoring will diminish water quality.
The TRPA does not have “one-size-fits-all” rules, but includes several levels of review. By putting qualified people on the ground, Oliver said, fuel-reduction projects can be effectively implemented without negative environmental impacts.
“Between all of the different agencies you have the expertise to make sure these projects are being done correctly,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily require that we spent a lot of extra time doing paperwork.”
No hearing date has yet been scheduled.