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Maintaining a Fragile Institution to Protect a Delicate Lake: Lessons in Resource Governance from the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency’s Successes and Failures

Maintaining a Fragile Institution to Protect a Delicate Lake: Lessons in Resource Governance from the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency’s Successes and Failures

Mason Overstreet 

Attempting to preserve a fragile ecosystem, spanning across multiple jurisdictional boundaries with diverse stakeholders and complex politics, is an arduous and noble task. Collaborative resource governance institutions are one model used to address such issues in the United States.[1] Examples vary, ranging from large watersheds and regional bays, to local river systems.[2] Large-scale efforts are found in coastal Louisiana; the Chesapeake Bay; the Florida Everglades; California’s Bay-Delta; Lake Tahoe; and along the Columbia, Delaware, Platte, and Colorado Rivers.[3] Of these efforts, Lake Tahoe’s fragile ecosystem, complex politics, and unique governmental jurisdictions—consisting of two states, five counties, and one major city—serve as an excellent case study for examining large-scale resource governance.[4]

The United States Supreme Court set the scene for Lake Tahoe best by stating: “All agree that Lake Tahoe is uniquely beautiful, that President Clinton was right to call it a national treasure that must be protected and preserved, and that Mark Twain aptly described its waters as ‘not merely transparent, but dazzlingly, brilliantly so.’”[5] Lake Tahoe’s infamous water clarity is the result of minimal algae growth and nominal amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus.[6] However, throughout the 20th century rampant land use development threatened the “Jewel of the Sierra”[7] and its infamous deep-water clarity.[8]

Development in the Tahoe Basin brought with it “increased nutrient loading of the lake largely because of the increase in impervious coverage of land in the Basin resulting from that development.”[9] In response, the United States District Court for the District of Nevada predicted that, “unless the process is stopped, the lake will lose its clarity and its trademark blue color, becoming green and opaque for eternity.”[10] As a result, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) was formed with the mission to lead “the cooperative effort to preserve, restore, and enhance the unique natural and human environment of the Lake Tahoe Region, while improving local communities, and people’s interactions with [Lake Tahoe’s] irreplaceable environment.”[11] The TRPA was the first federal bi-state ecosystem governance institution of its type in the United States.[12]

Two years ago marked the TRPA’s 45th anniversary.[13] The agency’s survival over the past four decades is a tribute to a few courageous individuals who shared a common vision and bravely attempted to try something new.[14] However, today the TRPA finds itself at a pivotal point in its existence “where failure to act and to act decisively may result in loss of the Lake’s pristine environment and its famed clarity and the consequent demise of the nearly $5 billion economy that the Lake supports.”[15]

This Note will proceed in four parts. Part I provides a brief introduction and background on Lake Tahoe, its unique attributes, the arrival of planning and regulation to the Basin, and descriptions of the early regulatory compacts. Part II provides an analysis of several pivotal failures by the TRPA in the Tahoe Basin. Part III presents an analysis of several key successes in the Tahoe Basin, which the TRPA was involved with. Part IV speculates about the benefit of the TRPA and provides a proposed rendering of how the institution could be improved, reconciling and learning from the past, in an attempt to make significant environmental improvements in a time when the Region’s environment, economy, demographics, and communities are changing. Finally, while this Note addresses a number of important questions about resource governance that can be applied elsewhere, this Note is specific to the Tahoe Basin and the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.

Questions and inquiries regarding this Note may be forwarded to the author at

[1] Andrea K. Gerlak & Tanya Heikkila, Comparing Collaborative Mechanisms in Large-Scale Ecosystem Governance, 46 Nat. Res. J. 657, 657–58 (2006).

[2] Id.

[3] Id. at 659.

[4] History, Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, (last visited Feb. 22, 2016); Mark T. Imperial & Derek Kauneckis, Moving from Conflict to Collaboration: Watershed Governance in Lake Tahoe, 43 Nat. Res. J. 1009, 1010 (2003).

[5] Tahoe-Sierra Pres. Council v. Tahoe Reg’l Planning Agency, 535 U.S. 302, 307 (2002) (internal quotation marks omitted).

[6]  Tahoe-Sierra Pres. Council v. Tahoe Reg’l Planning Agency, 34 F. Supp. 2d 1226, 1231 (D. Nev. 1999).

[7] Matthew Renda, Not One but Many: John Muir in Tahoe, Tahoe Quarterly (July 2015),

[8] Tahoe-Sierra, 535 U.S. at 307.  

[9] Tahoe-Sierra, 34 F. Supp. 2d at 1231.

[10] Id.

[11] About TRPA, Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, (last visited Feb. 22, 2016).

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.; Telephone Interview with E. Clement Shute Jr., Governing Board Member, Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (Feb. 16, 2016).

[15] About TRPA, Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, (last visited Feb. 22, 2016).

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