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A kneeling paddle boarder at Lake Tahoe on August 20, 2019. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

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Set against a forested South Lake Tahoe shoreline, Nevada and California politicians delivered speeches Tuesday efforts to protect the basin from environmental threats, including climate change. The following day, lawmakers took a substantive step in helping fund those efforts. 

For the first time in more than two decades, legislators approved increasing fees for residential Lake Tahoe homeowners who have piers and buoys on public state land. The fee fight has gone on for years, and it’s not likely to end just yet. The homeowners are expected to go to court.

But after punting on the issue in late 2017, the Legislative Commission’s vote, taken on partisan lines Wednesday, was significant. In 1993, the Legislature set fees for developing structures on public bodies of water. Even if homeowners build on private land, their piers and buoys are often placed on — or intersect with — areas considered state public land. Such land, under navigable bodies of water, is held in trust by the state. At the hearing Wednesday, State Land Registrar Charles Donohue said he had a fiduciary responsibility to taxpayers and Lake Tahoe users to ensure that if public land is being used for private purposes, the public is fairly compensated. 

And currently, the state has argued that the public is not being fairly compensated. 

The current fee for a residential pier on Lake Tahoe is $50 per year. The charge for a buoy is $30. The regulations approved Wednesday raise the fees to $750 for a pier and $250 per buoy, phasing in the new rates over three years. The higher charges — any funds in excess of $65,000 — are used for environmental programs that benefit other Lake Tahoe users.

“This regulation has the ability for the state to continue [its investment] in the environmental improvement program with the revenue that these fees may generate,” Donohue said. 

Facing concerns from Republican lawmakers that the revised levies amounted to a steep and sudden increase, Donohue called the fees “fair and accurate,” noting that they were developed with an in-house valuation, an appraisal and an analysis of charges in other Western states.

Senate Minority Leader James Settelmeyer asked Donohue if he would be willing to table the new regulations, arguing that the state could open itself to a lawsuit by approving the new fees. He said homeowners, opposed to the fees, might challenge whether the land is actually public, a determination that is based on lake elevation, or whether it violated the legislature’s intent.

“I’m just wondering if there is any appetite to find some compromise with the parties,” he said.

Donohue said the state had, for years, tried to reach a compromise with the interested groups on the proposed fees, which are already half of what is charged on Lake Tahoe’s California side.

The concerns of Republicans — and the lakefront homeowners — were not enough to dissuade the Legislative Commission from voting for the fees, which kick in during the next fiscal year.

At issue is perhaps a larger debate about where the government’s responsibility — as a trustee of natural resources — begins and ends in regulating bodies of water. It’s a conflict that often puts the government at odds with interests with a legal claim to use water for private purposes.

Here are some other stories I’m watching…

A new horse agreement: On Tuesday, the Nevada Department of Agriculture announced a new agreement for managing horses in the Virginia Range outside of Reno. Although most wild horses are managed by the Bureau of Land Management, this segment of free-roaming horses falls under the state’s purview. The agency’s partner, Wild Horse Connection, will be charged with fencing, responding to public safety issues, and feeding projects that divert horses away from high-risk areas, such as highways. The new partnership follows an agreement signed in April with the American Wild Horse Campaign to conduct fertility control on the population. 

Plutonium lawsuit, round II: After the 9th Circuit ruled against the state in its injunction on the half metric-ton shipment of plutonium, the attorney general’s office filed a motion to amend its original complaint and request the removal of the plutonium, the Review-Journal reported. On Wednesday, the court granted the state’s motion and the case will continue in District Court. The state will also be allowed to file a motion for leave to amend its complaint. Other parties to the case, including the state of South Carolina (where the plutonium originated), will also be allowed to make more motions. South Carolina has been pushing to move the venue for the litigation.

The rare water mention: Western water issues are rarely a top priority for most presidential campaigns. But occasionally a reporter will ask and a presidential contender will comment on it. (Arizona Sen. John McCain once called for renegotiating the Colorado River Compact in 2008). Last week, the Reno News & Review asked Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren about what principles would guide her when it came to interstate water issues and proposed transfers. Her answer focuses on conservation and the trust responsibility that the United States has to tribes.

ESA lawsuit: Conservation groups filed a lawsuit today that challenges a final rule from the Trump administration to weaken the implementation of the Endangered Species Act. Most of the changes would apply to future listings, making it more challenging for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to consider climate change in whether or not a species is threatened or endangered. It would also inject economic considerations into listing decisions and create custom rules for how threatened species are managed under the act. The groups, led by Earthjustice, included the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Humane Society, and the Center for Biological Diversity. Attorneys general in California and Massachusetts also plan to sue.

Sage-grouse numbers: Wildlife biologists in multiple states across the West have reported declines in the population of Greater sage-grouse, an imperiled bird that has come to symbolize the tension between conservation and development in the West. Although the bird, known for its quirky mating ritual, roams 11 states, the vast majority of its population persists in four states — Idaho, Montana, Nevada and Wyoming. In 2015, the Obama administration struck a deal with Western governors to defer listing the bird under the Endangered Species Act until 2020 if the states agreed to voluntary conservation measures. But populations are dropping in several states. The Idaho Statesman recently reported that the state’s grouse numbers are down about 52 percent since 2016, numbers the Idaho Conservation League said should “alarm everyone who values healthy rangelands.” In addition to development across the West, wildfire in Nevada poses one of the greatest threats to the sage-grouse, eliminating vast swaths of habitat for the birds in a matter of days. Fire has destroyed about 27 percent of the bird’s habitat in Nevada over the past two decades. As the bird comes up for a listing next year, the new Trump rules could affect what threats the wildlife service takes into consideration as it makes its decision.

Onto transportation: The Nevada Current covered an event last week marking the release of a clean energy scorecard released by the RenewNV Coalition, a network of conservation groups and liberal groups. Lawmakers there said they wanted to shift focus to emissions produced by the transportation sector. Assemblyman Howard Watts told The Current that he believes there is support for following California to boost the sale of zero-emission vehicles and bolster emission standards, rules that have been passed by thirteen other states and the District of Columbia.

Clips from the news:

  • Federal attorneys push back on church water rights case (EE News)
  • County to appeal judge’s decision on Lemmon Valley development (This is Reno)
  • The next urban water crisis? Inadequate data clouds forecast (Circle of Blue)
  • Colorado River: not quite voluntary, not quite mandatory – “vandatory”! (Fleck blog)
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