Wildfire preparedness workshop seeks to build community

KINGS BEACH, Calif. – The Tahoe Fire & Fuels Team is hosting a Community Wildfire Preparedness Workshop on June 1. The event runs from 9:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. at the North Tahoe Event Center in Kings Beach.

The event isn’t just for residents and homeowners. It’s open to anyone, including visitors.

Presenting agencies include the Tahoe Resource Conservation District, University of Nevada, Reno, Living with Fire Tahoe, North Tahoe Fire, North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District, and CalFire.

Firewise and Fire Adapted Communities Program neighborhood leaders are also on the agenda to speak. These are community members actively organizing their neighborhoods to be wildfire prepared. “It really brings into context, it’s not just agencies talking,” Michelle McLean with TRCD says, “it’s also people who are actually doing the work in their own neighborhoods.”

It’s free to the public and attendees can learn about home hardening, defensible space, prescribed fire, Firewise and other wildfire topics. McLean says these events are just as much about connecting the community and meeting people as they are about educating.

Neighborhood leaders experience these events enhancing their community and neighborhoods. McLean says building these relationships and community ties before emergencies happen is important and beneficial. They experienced this during the Caldor fire. “They all knew exactly what to do,” McLean says, “Everyone was communicating. They knew everyone was safe. And so, it just really creates that cohesiveness and makes you feel like you’re part of something. Like other people are looking out for you.”

Anyone wanting to attend can register for the event on Living with Fire Tahoe’s website.

Court rules in favor of parties challenging herbicide release in Tahoe Keys

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – El Dorado Superior Court Judge Gary Slossberg deemed the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance and Sierra Club prevailing parties in a lawsuit taking issue with herbicides released in the Tahoe Keys lagoons.

The court’s ruling, filed late April, commanded the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board vacate and set aside approval of the project involving herbicides, and any approvals rendered in furtherance of project implementation.

The suit listed the Tahoe Keys Property Owners Association as a real party in interest who was involved in submitting an application to the board to release herbicides.

“This is a major disappointment, but I want to be clear, we feel without question,” says association board member Pete Wolcott, “the ruling is incorrect and it is unjust based on the record.”

He explains the association spent a lot of time going over the ruling with council and have filed objections to the ruling on May 7. He says relevant facts in the record were not adequately presented at trial. They hope their objection sets the record straight.

The herbicides in question were intended to target aquatic invasive weeds running rampant in the Tahoe Keys such as Eurasion watermilfoil, coontail, and curlyleaf pondweed. According to the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, the Tahoe Keys lagoons are at the top of their list for treatment since the infestation there covers over 150 acres and is considered a source for weeds in other areas of the lake.

The regional board declined to speak with the Tribune, but provided a statement. Within the statement, the agency says, “Aquatic invasive plants in the lagoons threaten to spread further into the lake and the Truckee River, and if current trends continue, will continue to impact the nearshore areas.”

The herbicide release was a part of the Tahoe Keys Property Owners Association and other agencies’ collaborative three year Aquatic Weed Control Strategies Test in the Tahoe Keys. Although the test is a three year project, Wolcott says it’s actually a part of 10 year endeavor to define a solution for invasive weeds in the lake. They’ve centered it at the keys due to the magnitude of the infestation there.

Other project collaborators include the TRPA, Tahoe Water Suppliers Association, Tahoe Resource Conservation District, and the League to Save Lake Tahoe.

Year one of the control methods test encompassed chemical as well as non-chemical methods and in some regions a combination of both, starting in 2022. The last two years of the study, occurring in 2023 and this year, encompass only non-chemical strategies. Partners had hoped the test would inform future decisions by providing evidence of the most effective means to eradicate and control aquatic invasive plants.

Pesticide or herbicide treatments are typically prohibited by the Water Quality Control Plan for the Lahontan Region, which applies to Tahoe. However, exemptions can be applied for, and approved by the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board if certain criteria are met. Applicants must also conduct an Environmental Impact Report.

The association and collaborators began seeking approval for herbicide testing in 2017 and submitted an application shortly thereafter. Wolcott explains they turned to pursuing herbicides after a report in 2015 from the University of Nevada, Reno, recommended not only non-chemical methods, but also chemical methods due to the abundance of aquatic invasive plants in the Tahoe Keys lagoons. This is one of multiple details the association’s objection contends was left out of the ruling’s factual background.

The Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board found the initial 2017 exemption application incomplete. The association and partners resubmitted the application in spring 2021. After public hearings, the board granted the exemption application on January 13, 2022. They also accepted the Environmental Impact Report, and issued the necessary permit allowing the release of herbicides into the Tahoe Keys.

The club and alliance filed a petition with the State Water Resources Control Board less than a month after the Lahontan board approved the exemption. The state board took no action, so on June 15, 2022, the two organizations filed a petition against the regional board in the El Dorado County Superior Court.

From the time petitioners submitted their challenge to the state board in February 2022 and their court petition in June 2022, the property owners association had already administered the herbicides between May and June that year.

Wolcott says they had a very narrow window to apply the herbicides. He explains the release needed to be coordinated with the emergence of plants after winter and also align with water levels rising in the lake.

A factor the board raised to have the case dismissed was that the one-time application of herbicides had already taken place by the time the matter went trial in January 2024.

However, petitioners persisted with the suit due to the precedent it could set if it went unchallenged. “We were concerned that this might open the flood gates,” Toiyabe Chapter Director, Olivia Tanager, says for the Sierra Club, “for using chemicals in the lake when they shouldn’t be used.”

The court agreed with the club and alliance that the case should not be dismissed since it could still set aside board actions and prohibit the study’s data from being used in determining future strategies. The court also found public interest necessitated ruling against a dismissal.

Tanager references the board’s Water Quality Control Plan, stating all non-chemical methods must be exhausted before resorting to herbicides. “We wanted to make it clear that that was the precedent that should be upheld, not jumping to using herbicides because it might be more cost effective.”

She says, “It seemed like the TKPOA wanted to use herbicides because they thought it would be an easy and quick solution…” Tanager says, it was likely made in the interest of the property owners in the area.

“But again,” she says, “the bottomline of homeowners can’t come at the expense of the ecological health of the lake.”

Judge Slossberg found the cost of chemicals to be the most compelling argument in favor of finding non-chemical methods ineffective when it came to feasibility factors.

“Yet, in evaluating the feasibility of a method, cost is but one of many factors,” his decision reads and cites CEQA guidelines for feasibility which also take time, environment, legal, social and technological factors into consideration, in addition to economic factors.

The court says costs were presented in a vacuum with little analysis as to the meaning for the community and other feasibility factors. “Absent a more detailed cost-benefit analysis, the court cannot find that the costs of these non-chemical methods alone make them infeasible.”

In its objection, the association states exemption criteria doesn’t ask for a cost-benefit analysis and interprets CEQA’s guidelines on feasibility to mean any and all, so if any one of those factors are met, it can be deemed infeasible.

Wolcott says it isn’t just about the money, it’s about logistic viability, comparing it to painting the Golden Gate Bridge. “If you’re painting the bridge, but you can’t keep up with the rust, the bridge is going to corrode, right?” He accounts, “If you had every diver in the basin working either to pull the weeds or lay out bottom blankets, you couldn’t get ahead of it, it’s just not possible.”

While the court said the board’s plan doesn’t outright prohibit the granting of an exemption, the court can’t find that pesticide testing can be approved outside demonstrating non-chemical methods inappropriate or ineffective. The board argued since chemicals were a part of the project’s goal and description, non-chemical methods should be deemed infeasible.

The court disagreed, “Such an outcome clearly would be absurd and contrary to the intent of the exemption criteria to allow the discharge of pesticides only in limited circumstances.”

There are seven criteria a project must satisfy in order to receive the exemption. Petitioners argued the project did not meet three of them. However, the court only found the project did not satisfy two, centered around demonstrating the evaluation of non-chemical methods and finding them infeasible before turning to chemical methods.

While the property owner’s association contends they tried non-chemical methods for over 30 years, the judge did not find the non-chemical methods, such as bottom barriers, laminar flow aeration, and ultraviolet C light, were thoroughly evaluated and found to be infeasible.

“Instead,” the court says, “the evidence suggests that with proper coordination, including potentially with other non-chemical methods, these three non-chemical methods could be part of a successful control strategy for [aquatic invasive plant species] in the Tahoe Keys lagoons, one in which does not require the use of aquatic herbicides.”

“We feel we’ve tried everything,” Wolcott says. The association’s objection states the court conflated the need to demonstrate each method infeasible, when it found these methods might work if combined. They say that was a main purpose of the test, to see if methods deemed infeasible alone could prove to be feasible together with other methods, including herbicides.

In their objection, the association breaks down why each method has not worked in the past. Regarding bottom barriers specifically, “It would take 3.75-6 years to just lay them all within the Keys…” The objection states the court glossed over the difference between the small Eurasian watermilfoil infestation of six acres in Emerald Bay versus the long-term, multi-species problem in the Tahoe Keys lagoons.

The court did rule in the board’s favor on one exemption criterion, which states the project must demonstrate the target organism is a primary cause of the problem being addressed and that application of pesticides will accomplish the goal.

The club and alliance argued that until many other factors like nutrient loading, muck layers and stagnant waters, to name a few, are addressed, the weeds will continue to grow and herbicides will not fix the problem.

The court said, “It very well may be a better policy choice to require that the root causes be addressed prior to allowing the discharge of pesticides in a body of water; however, this is not what the court deems criterion 5 to require.”

The ruling notes the criterion uses language of “a primary cause” and not “the primary cause.” So, the court found that it is “within the board’s discretion to approve an exemption for pesticides if it deems that the target organism is one of the primary causes, even if other primary causes also exist.”

The court found the board failed to proceed in a lawful manner when it approved the final Environment Impact Report without the report analyzing consequences of repeated pesticide use. The board contended that the project only authorizes a one-time application of herbicides and that it’s a speculative and erroneous assumption it will lead to repeated use. However the court found ample evidence for repeat use of pesticides and that those consequences should have been considered in the report.

The court shot down petitioners’ claim that the impact report had a unduly narrow project description and did not analyze reasonable alternatives. The court found the project’s evaluation of non-chemical only options as satisfying this requirement.

In addition to the court commanding the board vacate and set aside approval of the project, it also ordered the board withdraw the pesticide prohibition exemption and certification of the final Environmental Impact Report.

Within the regional board’s statement, the agency says they are evaluating the ruling and its options. “Protecting water quality at the Tahoe Keys and Lake Tahoe remains the highest priority.”

The Sierra Club interprets the ruling, providing the following statement. “The judgement is clear in that it weighed all the evidence and ruled that the permit and environmental documentation be vacated. The project in its entirety was vacated.”

However, Wolcott says, “We are all staying the course.”

TRPA explains the current phase of the test may proceed as planned since it is only testing non-chemical methods at this point.

This year is the third and final year of the study. Their year two report shows invasive plant density was largely knocked back in herbicide treated sites, but also some non-chemical sites.

One hiccup with non-chemical means that Wolcott points out is their inability to be selective, so they often kill native plant species too. Herbicides are able to specifically target the three invasive plants. Preliminary data from 2022 in the entire west lagoon shows a volume increase of the native aquatic plant, elodea. After herbicide release, elodea absolute volumes increased five times the recorded amount in 2020. Wolcott says less than 40% of that area was treated with herbicides. They expect the treated areas to show higher volume increases.

This is preliminary data and the findings still need to be peer reviewed, but Wolcott says, “One of the best results we could achieve is if we could specifically knock back these bad guys and have the lagoons and the entrance channels fill back in with the desirable native plants.”

Collaborators had hoped the aquatic herbicides would provide a fresh start, “The aquatic herbicides give us an opportunity for a do-over,” Wolcott expresses, “where we can get it back to a level where we can maintain it in other ways, hopefully.” Part of the goal of the project was to see if after the one-time application of herbicides, they could maintain the progress without further chemical use.

The Sierra Club recognizes invasive species as a very real issue in the lake. “We certainly don’t want to let the invasives run rampant in the lake,” Tanager says, but wants to make sure addressing invasive species does not cause other issues.

Wolcott says the control method test architecture included mitigation techniques to ensure herbicides stayed in the lagoons. With their double turbidity curtains, providing around a 99% restrictor to water exchange, there was no detection of herbicides 100 yards away from the test areas, Wolcott explains. “The care that went into ensuring no detectable chemicals got into the lake was unbelievable,” Wolcott says.

The Sierra Club says they plan on filing a response to the association’s objection that will state reasons why it is substantively and procedurally improper. They’ll also file a proposed writ and judgment, serving as a directive from the court to the regional board to rescind all approvals associated with the project.

The Tribune will provide updates as the case unfolds.

City to prepare report on newly certified vacancy tax measure

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – City Council unanimously voted in favor of preparing an informational report on the impacts of the vacancy tax measure hitting ballots in November.

City Attorney Heather Stroud said, citing case law, “This report provides the electorate an opportunity to make an informed decision on a proposed initiative.”

Council passed the motion approving the report preparation at their meeting on May 7, contingent on the petition certification. The measure was certified by the El Dorado County Elections Department on Wednesday, May 15, allowing it to go to the ballot in November.

Council agreed upon city staff recommended factors for the assessment, including the multi-thousand dollar annual tax on vacant homes’ positive and negative fiscal impact, impact on funding for infrastructure, and effects on use of land, availability of housing, and ability of city to meet regional housing needs assessment. Council also requested additional items to the report. Those include methods for determining vacancy, impacts on property values, differences of comparable cities that have considered or implemented a vacancy tax, implementation cost, and an initial legal analysis.

“And we would like the report to be as broad as possible while also recognizing the time constraints,” Councilmember Tamara Wallace motioned.

Many community members requested the report be as broad as possible. Elections code section 9212, that allows the report, requires it be presented to City Council no later than 30 days after the City Clerk certifies the sufficiency of the petition.

Regarding the legal analysis, City Attorney Heather Stroud, said she doesn’t have a crystal ball on what courts could decide, since there are no published cases yet on vacancy tax in California or other parts of the country. She said she can summarize arguments made in the San Francisco case and look at special tax district argument. “I can’t say whether it’s legal or not legal, that’s just not possible.”

Robbins pointed out there might not be much to summarize in the case in San Francisco, since opponents to the tax have filed their arguments, but the city has not filed their counter arguments yet.

“That would be rather one sided,” he said.

Stroud said she could provide a legal update on the case up until this point, which does include city arguments on a demurrer.

Robbins still voted for the report with legal analysis despite this point raised.

Concerns surrounding whether the initiative creates a special tax district was raised by public commenters. While some supported the initiative and others did not, most supported going forward with the report. Some pled for a writ of mandate to take the measure off the ballot.

The report will presented to Council at their June 18 meeting.