Recent Speeches

Statement on Introduction of the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act of 2009

Entered into the Congressional Record

Mr. President. Lake Tahoe is a national treasure. Her alpine beauty has drawn and inspired people for centuries: artists and poets, John Muir and Mark Twain, and countless millions the world over.

But the “Jewel of the Sierra” is in big trouble. If we don’t act now, we could lose Lake Tahoe -- lose it with stunning speed -- to several devastating threats.

Invasive species, such as the quagga mussel, could decimate the lake, much as it has Lake Mead. Just one quagga mussel attached to boat could lay 1 million eggs. An infestation would devastate the lake.

It would ruin its biology, foul its beaches, deliver a body blow to the regional economy.

It would turn this “noble sheet of clear water,” as Twain put it, into just another dull, gray, polluted body of water. We must get a stranglehold on invasive species before they get a stranglehold on the lake.

Catastrophic wildfires could spiral out of control and consume the Basin. The Angora Fire of 2007 destroyed 242 homes and scorched 3,100 acres. It was just a wakeup call.

Today, 25 percent of the Basin’s forests are marred by dead, downed or dying trees. These fuels -- combined with hot, tinder-dry conditions -- threaten explosive wildfires that could incinerate the Basin. We must make their removal a top priority.

Pollution and sedimentation threaten Lake Tahoe’s fabled water clarity. In 1968, the first year UC Davis scientists made measurements using a device called a Secchi disk, clarity was measured at an average depth of 102.4 feet.

Clarity declined over the next three decades, hitting a low of 64 feet in 1997. We’ve seen improvements in this decade. This year scientists recorded average clarity at 69.6 feet – roughly within the range of the past eight years.

Scientists say the rate of decline in Lake Tahoe’s clarity has slowed. I believe we can build on this. But the gains could easily be reversed if we’re not diligent.

And climate change is real and adding to all these problems. It leaves the Basin hot and tinder-dry, and vulnerable to wildfires. The lake’s surface water temperature has risen 1.5 degrees in 38 years. That means the cyclical deep-water mixing of the lake’s waters will occur less frequently, and this could significantly disrupt Lake Tahoe’s ecosystem.

Mr. President, we must face facts: We could lose Lake Tahoe.

So it is with a real sense of urgency that today I join with Majority Leader Reid as he introduces sweeping legislation to attack these threats. The Lake Tahoe Restoration Act of 2009 is also co-sponsored by Senators Ensign and Boxer. Representative Dean Heller of Nevada is introducing a companion in the House of Representatives.

This legislation would authorize $415 million over eight years to mount a robust attack against these threats.

Against invasive species.

Against catastrophic wildfires.

Against the sedimentation and pollution that could forever ruin Lake Tahoe’s crystal waters.

With this legislation we can rise to the challenges presented by all these threats, and build upon the gains set in motion by the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act of 2000.

Bottom line: This bill will help ensure the protection and preservation of Lake Tahoe, now and for future generations.

History of Restoration Efforts

Now, to see where we’re headed, it’s important to review where we’ve been. So I’d like to touch on the work that’s been done so far at Lake Tahoe, work that sets the foundation for the effort that lies ahead.

The Lake Tahoe Restoration Act of 2000 set in motion a partnership between the federal government, the states of California and Nevada, local governments and organizations, and the private sector.

All were brought together with a common purpose: To save Lake Tahoe.

I’m proud to have been an original sponsor, along with Senators Reid and Boxer, and then-Senator Dick Bryan.

This legislation set in motion investments that have enabled us to get a foothold.

These investments included $424 million by the federal government, $612 million by the state of California, $87 million by the state of Nevada, $59 million by local governments and $249 million by the private sector.

It financed more than 300 projects under the Environmental Improvement Program, a combined federal, state, local and private-sector partnership to restore Lake Tahoe. One hundred eighty three more projects are in progress.

We’ve seen improvements across the board:

  • Water Clarity: Stormwater, erosion-control, and road improvement projects enabled us to begin to tackle the problem of sedimentation and pollution, which enters the lake and degrades its fragile water clarity. This includes improvements to 429 miles of roadways, and restoring 739 acres of wetlands. As I noted a moment ago, we have seen gains in water clarity in this decade, and this year’s average clarity was 69.6 feet. Scientists report that the rate of decline has slowed. But these gains could easily be reversed if we don’t continue and broaden our efforts to keep sediments out of the lake.
  • Catastrophic Wildfires: One-quarter of the forests of the Tahoe Basin are comprised of dead, downed and dying trees. Combined with hot, tinder-dry conditions, they can feed massive wildfires that could destroy the Basin. Removal of these hazardous fuels has been a priority. The Fire Safe Councils and the local Fire Departments have done good work. They deserve our continued support, and with this legislation, they will get it. As with efforts on water clarity, efforts to clear the forests of hazardous fuels, and to institute sensible fire-safe practices must be continued.

    So far, hazardous fuels reduction treatment has occurred on 33,549 acres, including 12,256 acres treated since 2006. In the next eight years, we plan on treating 68,000 additional acres.
  • Stream Restoration and Wildlife Habitat Improvement: So far more than 13,927 acres of wildlife habitat have been improved and 800 acres of Stream Environment Zones restored. This includes restoration of the Upper Truckee Watershed to reduce the flow of sedimentation into the lake, and reintroduction of the Tahoe Yellow Cress, a plant that grows no place else on Earth.

Much work has been done. Much work lies ahead. It must be done, because the old threats are still there. And new ones – such as the quagga mussel – have arisen.

Lake Tahoe Restoration Act of 2009

The bill introduced today by Senator Reid is essential to continuing the good work done to date, and to meeting the threats facing the lake today.

It would authorize $415 million over eight years to improve water clarity, reduce risk of catastrophic wildfire, and restore the environment.

Specifically, it would do the following:

  • Provide $248 million over eight years for the highest priority restoration projects, according to scientific data. The legislation authorizes at least $72 million for stormwater management and watershed restoration projects scientifically determined to be the most effective ways to improve water clarity.

This bill also requires prioritized ranking of environmental restoration projects and authorizes $136 million for state and local agencies to implement these projects.

Now -- and this is an important point -- this legislation would direct investments to where it is needed most.

For example, today we know the major sources of stormwater runoff that send sedimentation into the lake, degrading water clarity.

So the monies would go to specific projects addressing California state roads (source of 23 percent of urban particle loads); the city of Lake Tahoe, Calif. (22 percent); Washoe County, Nevada (17 percent); and so forth.

In this bill, these stormwater projects are targeted to the areas of greatest concern.

Priority projects will improve water quality, forest health, air quality and fish and wildlife habitat around Lake Tahoe.  In addition, projects that benefit low-income neighborhoods are encouraged.

  • Authorizes $136 million over eight years to reduce the threat of wildfire in Lake Tahoe. This would finance hazardous fuels reduction projects, at $17 million per year, including grants to local fire agencies.

It provides the Forest Service up to $10 million for fuels projects that have multiple environmental benefits, with an emphasis in restoring Stream Environment Zones.

This is critical because, again, these streams feed into the lake, and form a critical link in the ecosystem. We need to pay attention to these stream zones if we hope to restore water clarity.

The bill also creates incentives for local communities to have dedicated funding for defensible space inspections and enforcement.

  • Protecting Lake Tahoe from the threat of quagga mussels and other invasive aquatic species.  Quagga mussels pose a very serious threat to Lake Tahoe, a threat made more intractable because these mussels have been shown to survive in cold waters. And this summer UC scientists reported that they found up to 3,000 Asian clams per square meter at spots between Zephyr Point and Elk Point in Lake Tahoe. The spreading Asian clam population could put sharp shells and rotting algae on the Lake’s beaches and help spread other invasive species such as quagga mussels.

The bill would authorize $20 million for watercraft inspections and removal of existing invasive species.

It would also prohibit watercraft that have had contact with quagga or zebra mussel-infested waters from entering waters in the Tahoe Basin. As I noted earlier, one quagga or zebra mussel can lay 1 million eggs in a year.  This means that a single boat carrying quagga could devastate the lake’s biology, local infrastructure, and the local economy. 

The damage that could be inflicted at Lake Tahoe by a quagga infestation has been estimated in the tens of millions of dollars annually. The threat to Lake Tahoe cannot be overstated. There were no quagga mussels in Lake Mead three years ago. Today there are more than 3 trillion. The infestation is probably irreversible.

Quagga mussels attach themselves to underwater structures and clog water intake pipes, canals, aqueducts and dams.

They degrade water quality and can alter the taste and smell of drinking water.
They can devastate aquatic ecosystems by consuming large amounts of microscopic plants, leaving little or nothing for native fish and other aquatic species.

They are a very real threat. But the fix need not be drastic.

Only about 1.5 percent of boats that have been inspected in Lake Tahoe would be prohibited from entering the lake, according to the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.

The bill would also require that all watercraft be inspected and decontaminated to prevent the introduction of invasive aquatic species. Watercraft last launched in Lake Tahoe would be exempted.

The Secretary of the Interior can modify these regulations if scientific information leads to new technologies or techniques that would be no less effective than current measures.

And there’s good news. There’s promising news on this front. This week, scientists reported that under proper conditions, plastic “bottom barriers” laid on top of clam beds can kill all Asian clams living there within 28 days. (Reno Gazette Journal, 10/29)

We can fight off these invaders. But it will require drive and imagination – and the help authorized within this bill.

  • Supports reintroduction of the Lahontan Cutthroat Trout. The legislation authorizes $20 million over eight years for the Lahontan Cutthroat Trout Recovery Plan. The Lahontan Cutthroat Trout is an iconic species that has an important historic legacy in Lake Tahoe.

When John C. Fremont first explored the Truckee River in January of 1844, he called it the Salmon Trout River because he found the Pyramid Lake Lahontan Cutthroat Trout. The trout relied on the Truckee River and its tributaries for their spawning runs in spring, traveling up the entire river's length as far as Lake Tahoe and Donner Lake, where they used the cool, pristine waters and clean gravel beds to lay their eggs. But dams, pollution and overfishing caused the demise of the Lahontan Cutthroat Trout.

Lake Tahoe is one of the historic 11 lakes where Lahontan Cutthroat Trout flourished in the past, and it’s a critical part of the strategy to recover the species.

  • Funds scientific research. The legislation authorizes $30 million over eight years for scientific programs and research which will produce information on long-term trends in the Basin and inform the most cost-effective projects.
  • Prohibiting mining operations in the Tahoe Basin. The legislation would prevent the start of any mining operations in the Basin, ensuring that the fragile watershed, and Lake Tahoe’s water clarity, are not threatened by pollution from mining operations.
  • Increases accountability and oversight. Every project funded by this legislation will have monitoring and assessment to determine the most cost-effective projects and best management practices for future projects.

The legislation also requires the Chair of the Federal Partnership to work with the Forest Service, Environmental Protection Agency, Fish and Wildlife Service and regional and state agencies, to prepare an annual report to Congress detailing the status of all projects undertaken, including project scope, budget and justification and overall expenditures and accomplishments.

This will ensure that Congress can have oversight on the progress of environmental restoration in Lake Tahoe.

  • Provides for public outreach and education. The Forest Service, Environmental Protection Agency, Fish and Wildlife Service and Tahoe Regional Planning Agency will implement new public outreach and education programs including encouraging Basin residents and visitors to implement defensible space, conducting best management practices for water quality and preventing the introduction and proliferation of invasive species. In addition, the legislation requires signage on federally financed projects to improve public awareness of restoration efforts. 
  • Allows for increased efficiency in the management of public land. Under this legislation, the Forest Service would have increased flexibility to exchange land with state agencies which will allow for more cost-efficient management of public land. There is currently a checkerboard pattern of ownership in some areas of the Basin.

Under this new authority, the Forest Service could exchange land with the California Tahoe Conservancy of approximately equal value without going through a lengthy process to assess the land.

For example, if there are several plots of Forest Service land that surround or are adjacent to Tahoe Conservancy land, the Tahoe Conservancy could transfer that land to the Forest Service so that it can be managed more efficiently.

Oversight and Accountability

Finally, it’s important to note that this bill would increase accountability and oversight.

All projects funded by this legislation would be monitored and assessed to ensure cost-effectiveness.

The bill would also require annual reports to Congress detailing the status of all projects—including expenditures and accomplishments.

And scientific data will be used to inform every aspect of this legislation.

It will help us refine and adjust our restoration programs and ensure that we fund only the highest priority projects.


Let there be no doubt: Lake Tahoe is in grave danger.

Grave danger from casastrophic wildfires. Grave danger from invasive species. Grave danger from sedimentation and pollution that threaten to dull her crystal waters.

Mark Twain called Lake Tahoe “the fairest picture the whole world affords."

Mr. President, we must not be the generation that lets this picture fall into ruin.

We must rise to the challenge, and do all we can to preserve the “Jewel of the Sierra.”

This legislation will do exactly that.

I thank the Chair; I yield the floor.