Jeff Pelline: The public money pit at Lake Tahoe |

Jeff Pelline: The public money pit at Lake Tahoe

Placer is one of the luckiest counties around.

Though it suffers from the same woes as any rural county, including ours, Placer holds a trump card: The $10-million-plus homes that line the north and west shores of Lake Tahoe – and the hefty property tax dollars they generate – are within its fiendishly formed borders.

Not bad when you consider the county seat in Auburn is 80 miles to the west, across a rugged 7,200-foot pass. Placer’s median household income is about $60,000, according to census figures, not even enough to pay the annual property tax for a lakefront home. How’s that for economic gerrymandering?

But like everything, Placer’s golden goose at Lake Tahoe comes at a price. On the flip side, the county has to maintain snow-covered roads at 6,200 feet in the winter, as well as work with myriad other agencies to, as they put it, “Keep Tahoe Blue.” Politics always plays a role, too, it seems.

As we all know Tahoe is a national treasure. The nation’s second-deepest lake is known for its clarity and scenic beauty.

Since the ’60s, however, significant real-estate development – much of it ill-conceived – has clouded the lake’s crystal-blue waters, reducing clarity by nearly one-third by some estimates. A campaign to protect the lake has been underway for decades.

Like many of you, we’ve seen it first hand. Our family has been camping at Tahoe for 40 years and sailed in the lake for more than a decade. In the ’90s, my wife and I bought a modest place a few hundred yards up the road from the lake. We almost live there in the summer.

This month, our neighborhood was turned upside down by a multimillion-dollar construction project to “Keep Tahoe Blue.”

Tons and tons of rock, cement and asphalt were shipped into the neighborhood to build drainage ditches and curbs, all in the interest of preventing snow melt and other surface water – containing gravel, sand and other impurities – from running directly into the lake. A whole fleet of backhoes and a crew of more than a dozen people were working nonstop.

Similar projects are underway all around the lake with the same goal: preserving the lake’s famous clarity. Ten years ago, federal, state and local governments, prodded by President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, pledged $1 billion in funding to help protect the lake.

One thing is certain: The gigantic sum of money is keeping contractors and Placer County workers busy – a boon because Tahoe City’s economy has become highly cyclical (at best).

I worry about the effectiveness of the erosion-control projects, however.

In our neighborhood, for example, a previous drainage project flopped.

County maintenance lagged. (Once the army of backhoes go home, money becomes tight again.) One time, a big orange truck that was supposed to suck up pine needles and debris from the rock-lined drainage ditches also sucked up the rocks themselves. As it turned out, the rocks used to line the ditch were too small.

Much of the water from the culverts also was sent rushing into our backyard because of poor engineering.

We joke about “public makework” projects, and I hope erosion-control projects such as the one in our neighborhood and others around the lake aren’t one of them.

As for a more basic task, I think the snow removal process could be more environmentally friendly, such as removing gravel from our neighborhood more quickly in the spring. Otherwise, the dust gets kicked up into the lake. I’ve seen it happen for years – like the cloud of dust that surrounded Pigpen in the Peanuts cartoon strip.

The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, or TRPA, also generates skepticism from Tahoe residents about its supposed watchdog role. Many people think the game plan is more about generating fees to keep the agency going than protecting the lake.

They point to TRPA approval of giant homes that touch the edge of the property line, like condos in Manhattan. To many, the humongous homes look out of place alongside such a national treasure. I don’t understand why TRPA holds sailboats like ours to the same standards as gasoline motorboats when it comes to many regulations, including buoys.

The other problem is pinpointing the loss of Lake Tahoe’s clarity.

Some disagree whether the culprit is surface water runoff or air pollution from outside the Tahoe basin, including the western end of Placer County, which touches an area of almost unbridled growth.

Isn’t that an interesting thought to keep government busy? The public sector version of “what one hand giveth, the other taketh away.” Even some poor guy in Iowa is helping to foot the bill.


Jeff Pelline is the editor of The Union. His column appears on Saturdays. Contact him at 477-4235,, or 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley 95945.

On the Web:

Tahoe Regional Planning Agency:

League to Save Lake Tahoe:

Placer County:

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