Lake Tahoe Summit: Wildfire risks, management central themes | TheUnion.com

Lake Tahoe Summit: Wildfire risks, management central themes

Justin Scacco
Special to The Union

With smoke pooling in the Tahoe Basin, members of Congress from Nevada, California and Alaska took the stage at Sand Harbor this week for the 22nd annual Lake Tahoe Summit.

While the representatives touched on a number of issues regarding Tahoe and the importance of public-private sponsorships in the fight to preserve and restore the lake, there was no ignoring the effects of the largest fire in California state history as the members of Congress stood in front of a lake clouded by haze.

"What we're seeing in this state is a dramatic change in weather. Drought and intense wildfires are being driven by climate change, and this is well indicated in our latest State of the Lake report," said U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. "Temperatures are rising in the surrounding basin, the hot summer season has increased by 26 days over the last 50 years, water temperatures are rising half a degree each year … solving this problem will require a global effort, and to solve it here is going to require, for the next 20 years, a rejuvenated team Tahoe."

The summit came on the heels of the University of California, Davis' annual report on Lake Tahoe, which showed record surface water temperatures and record-low clarity readings.

The event's keynote speaker and first to take the stage to address the crowd was U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). The summit also included remarks from Senator Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Congressman Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), Congressman John Garamendi (D-Calif.) and Nevada Seismological Laboratory Director Graham Kent.

Murkowski compared Alaska's issues concerning lakes and wildfires to that of Nevada's and California's, while highlighting the work done recently in the Senate to pass an appropriations bill. The bill, which was passed Aug. 1 and will now head to the House of Representatives, provides funding for the Department of the Interior (Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Parks Service, Wildland Firefighting and Prevention, etc.) and Environmental Protection Agency.

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"We passed the interior, environment bill as part of a core package appropriations bill that moved through the Senate," said Murkowski. "We haven't seen an interior environment appropriations bill come to the floor of the Senate in eight years now … the fact that we were able to move these appropriations bills by a very, very strong bipartisan majority, 92-6, says a lot about where we are and what we are doing.

"We do a fair amount within this appropriations bill that will help you," Murkowski told the crowd. "Obviously, the support for the forest service and the (Environmental Protection Agency) — two of the agencies that are collaborating to restore and protect Lake Tahoe. We've got $15 million for Tahoe priorities such as forest and wetlands restoration and the invasive species work."

Invasive species shutout

It wasn't all fire and warming temperatures at this year's Lake Tahoe Summit.

The battle against invasive species hit a landmark of 10 years without any new organisms finding a foothold in the lake.

"The important work of the Lake Tahoe Aquatic Invasive Species Coordination Committee along with the Tahoe Resource Conservation District has made all the difference," said Heller. "Because of these efforts it's important to note that we've hit a milestone this year in the fight against invasive species.

"We're celebrating 10 years of the Lake Tahoe boat inspection program, which has held up as a national model in combatting potentially harmful species. Over the last decade we've detected no new invasive species … to ensure that we uphold this accomplishment, with the help of Senator Murkowski, we included $3 million to combat invasive species in the Senates interior, environment appropriations bill."

Leading the way in fire prevention

Several of the members of Congress highlighted the success of Lake Tahoe's fire protection program, AlertTahoe, a network of cameras in the Tahoe Basin and surrounding areas.

Senator Heller took to the stage following Murkowski and announced AlertTahoe had been allocated $226,000 from the US Forest Service to install and maintain new fire cameras in the Tahoe Basin.

"Since its inception, AlertTahoe has played a role in stopping hundreds of potentially devastating fires from crippling this basin," said Heller. "By investing in these technologies and catching fires before they expand we will save time, money, and most importantly, we will be saving lives."

Dr. Kent used much of his time on stage to promote the system of cameras as a cost-effective way of staying on top of wildfires.

"Since the last summit, both California and Nevada have experienced their largest wildfires," said Kent.

"The Alert Wildfire system can save about ($80,000). If you have to descale a response on a red alert day — not a fire day — that's a lot of money. If you can see the fire and you know you can just send a truck or two, you know you don't have to get (support) in the air."

Kent went on to give an example of the 2017 Lilac Fire that burned in northern San Diego County as a way the cameras can be used to not only save money, but property and lives as well.

"Worst fire conditions ever … and there was a roadside car fire, and within 35 seconds of that being reported on 911, the camera was on the Lilac Fire. It didn't look good," said Kent.

"The 14 (other) cameras from the Alert SDG&E network were watching the rest of the county — no other fires. And this is where the fire chief made a brave decision. He gambled, but informed. He threw every truck and asset into the gap of the San Luis Rey River, and they stopped it at 4,100 acres.

"And many people thought beforehand and during the early phases that it might go to 40 or 50,000 acres. So, that's how you potentially save a billion dollars."

Kent also announced funding has been secured through the Parasol Tahoe Community Foundation to purchase the last two cameras for the Tahoe Basin. The foundation has also set up a $55,000 matching endowment for maintenance expenses.

Fire and climate change at the forefront

Though the recent State of the Lake report has raised alarms in terms of water temperatures, lack of deep water mixing, and invasive species, the tone of this year's summit centered on wildfire management.

"For many years forest management and fire prevention took a back seat at these summits, but now nature is screaming its warning at us through the fires that rage throughout the west," said Congressman McClintock. "The Tahoe basin is on borrowed time. The fires all around us — we can see the smoke in the air — present a very stark question. How much longer does Tahoe have? Will the view at next year's summit be of burned out structures and blackened vistas, and an ash choked lake?"

While California deals with fires across the state, Senator Feinstein delivered some promising news on the front with the addition of seven C-120 airplanes, which have been transferred from the air force to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

"Two of those planes are already being used to fight fires, though they will need additional upgrades in the future," said Feinstein. "And we're working to expedite the necessary upgrades and transfer the remaining five planes. Once this transfer is in place CAL FIRE will have the largest aerial fleet in the world for fighting wildfire."

Nevada's Senator Masto painted the current landscape more broadly, using her time to call for global action and greater urgency in the Reno-Tahoe area.

"We are facing, and I will say it, climate change," said Masto. "I do believe the science. This is one of the biggest threats, not only to Lake Tahoe, which experienced its highest ever recorded water temperature last year, but to every community on Earth."

Masto called for a move toward clean energy in the region such as wind, geothermal, and solar, while requesting support for local researchers.

"We have to continue to support federal research funding for the scientists studying this region," she said.

An example for future generations

Moving into the future, Senator Murkowski said all eyes on are on Tahoe and what policies and projects the public and private entities tasked with protecting the lake will take up.

The groups around Lake Tahoe are looking at experimental techniques like ultraviolet light and bottom barriers for improving clarity and removing invasive species, while others look to more proven means such as better construction techniques and proactive methods for keeping sediment from entering the lake.

"When you've got a common denominator, which is your lake right out there, that brings you all together in a circle — you figure it out eventually," said Murkowski. "And you're figuring it out, and we're watching it. So know that you should be very proud of these collective, bipartisan, and across state line efforts that you have made that have resulted in improved forest and ecosystem health."

Justin Scacco is a reporter for the Sierra Sun, a sister publication of The Union. Contact him at jscacco@sierrasun.com.

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