Monday, June 21, 2010

Bonanza Column 190 – TRPA and the Gulf

What does the Gulf oil disaster mean to us here at Lake Tahoe? In a sense that may seem somewhat abstract, it affects everyone in the world – the destruction of human, animal, and plant life and the prospect of a long recovery with concomitant economic effects will reach to everyone in the US, and really in the world. It also once again brings home the disastrous consequences of our national addiction to oil and fossil fuels, and that will affect us here as well.

But I want to consider it in a less abstract sense. On the one hand, we don't drill for oil in the lake, so the likelihood of a sudden destruction of the lake and the shoreline is negligible. On the other hand, there may be lessons to be learned from the Gulf that are very relevant to the Tahoe Basin.

We know that the Lake is losing clarity. Contributors to this include runoff of various materials from the land as well as non-native vegetable and animal species that have found their way into the Lake by various means. It is extremely unlikely that, once these species are in the water, we will ever get them out – the best we can do is manage them so that they don't get worse. We can do and are doing something about runoff, and there is evidence that the rate of decline of the Lake's clarity is decreasing.

Still, it is not outside the realm of possibility that we will fail – that the Lake will lose its clarity and the non-native species will spread and take over and the character of the Lake will change dramatically if not in our lifetime, then in our children's lifetimes, and that the impact of such a decline would not be much less impactful than the disaster in the Gulf.

The one thing we have that the states bordering the Gulf of Mexico don't have is an interstate compact that established an agency to be accountable for the clarity of the Lake and the scenic beauty of the Basin. That agency is, of course, TRPA.

In the famous old saw, a camel is what you would get if a horse were designed by a committee, and for much of its 40-year history, TRPA has functioned like that metaphorical camel. Overseen by a Board of Governors many of whom do not live anywhere near the Basin, and many of whom have seemed to see their job as to protect the interest of their state against the other state, sometimes at the expense of their mission, the Agency has seemed at times (to use another old metaphor) like a librarian who thinks his job is to keep books on the shelves.

Others, including commercial interests, environmental organizations, and self-styled protectors of the Lake, have opposed TRPA, some saying the Agency doesn't do enough, some that it does too much, and all informed by agendas that have less to do with balancing nature's needs with human interests than with what would benefit them. A combination of PR from these narrow interests and the Agency's history of often ensnarling projects in red tape has given residents of the Basin a view of TRPA that is jaundiced at best.

Beginning with John Singlaub's appointment as Executive Director in 2004, and continuing or even accelerating with Joanne Marchetta's succeeding John last year, TRPA has been working hard not just to change its image, but to be more effective in its mission of balancing the "triple bottom line" – people, environment, and business. It's said that a reputation takes years to be established and can be destroyed in a minute. I think it's equally true that a bad reputation can be established in a minute and can take years to be changed. Because of this it's too easy for those individuals and groups who are reflexively opposed to TRPA in pursuit of their own agenda to rally public support for their views, even when those views are wrong or are supported by inaccurate data. TRPA is too often "guilty until proven innocent."

If Florida, Louisiana, et al., had had an agency like TRPA it's possible that the current disaster could have been averted. Maybe it's time we appreciated what we have in TRPA and gave the Agency's new direction a chance.

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