Backyard conservation can have far-reaching effects, as homeowners in two states of the Lake Tahoe Basin learn from cooperating conservation districts
(Article courtesy of the National Association of Conservation Districts’ report, Our Land, Our Water.)
Cooperation across state lines between two conservation districts is helping residents in the Lake Tahoe basin protect one of America’s best-known water bodies.
Lodged in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Lake Tahoe was developed rapidly and not always wisely in the mid-20th century. With multiple jurisdictions in the basin, including two states, cooperation is the key to making conservation gains.
The Tahoe Resource Conservation District in California and the Nevada Tahoe Conservation District in Nevada have the daunting task of helping about 40,000 residential property owners in the basin comply with mandated best management practices (BMP). Their work is part of a broader strategy to reduce sediment and nutrient impacts on water quality in Lake Tahoe and improve overall forest resource management.
The districts make regular use of the national Backyard Conservation Program to provide private landowners conservation education, technical assistance, and whole-parcel conservation plans. The Natural Resources Conservation Service offers guidance on protocols for effectiveness studies the districts conduct on recommended practices. While at least half of the residential properties in the basin are in need of attention, there has been progress.
“We feel the program has made a lot of headway, and we’ve been able to help homeowners and assist with lake clarity,” says Jason Brand, program manager in the Nevada-Tahoe District. But there’s still plenty of work to be done. Some communities in the basin have aggressively worked toward compliance; others haven’t moved as quickly. “There’s a huge need for BMPs,” says Brand.
His counterpart at the Tahoe Resource Conservation District says it’s important that the two districts provide consistent information. “We try and be on the same page as to materials and messages we provide to homeowners,” says Eben Swain, BMP coordinator. “If you get a site evaluation on the Nevada or California side, it should be the same.”
“We cooperate extensively,” says Brand. A memorandum of understanding paves the way for districts to work across state boundaries. They also share services on some projects. Invasive weeds are a concern in the region, and the Nevada-Tahoe District uses the services of the Tahoe RCD’s invasive weeds coordinator. The districts also partner with NRCS, Cooperative Extension, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA), state agencies and local communities.
Swain’s program has a staff of 10, plus two or three seasonal employees. Brand has a staff of five. Both districts provide free site visits to residential properties. Conservation plans for private parcels include recommendations for runoff management and storm-water treatment, slope stabilization, soil protection, noxious weed removal, revegetation with native and adapted plants, water and fertilizer management, pest management, wildlife habitat improvement, forest management and reduction of fire hazards. Swain’s program this year offers trees, ground cover and other vegetation free to cooperating homeowners, using proceeds from a state grant.
The work helps landowners comply with local ordinances and basin-wide water quality strategic plans, some of them mandated by the TRPA. The districts certify compliance for homeowners.
BMP work is complicated by wildfire risks in the heavily forested region. The Angora Fire last year destroyed more than 250 homes. The districts are working to make sure their conservation goals are consistent with defensible-space requirements for homes. This includes testing BMPs like mulch for fire-resistance.
Outreach activities drive both programs. The Tahoe RCD reaches out to close to 2,000 homeowners a year in a variety of ways, including workshops, conservation block parties, person-to-person contacts, phone calls, site visits and other contacts.
In Nevada, the program is promoted through a community watershed planning process in individual communities. Workshops, demonstration sites, educational publications and on-site visits with homeowners are used. The work is costly, and both districts rely on grants. A main source for both is funding from the Southern Nevada Public
Land Management Act. NRCS administers the funds for district programs. Both districts also receive state funding for BMP work.
The work is clearly identified by both districts as a local and regional priority.
“We’re set up to deal with local issues, and in this area, one of the main issues is BMPs,” says Swain. With studies showing that urban upland areas in the basin are some of the biggest contributors to nutrient and sediment loading in Lake Tahoe, the districts are working on a local issue that makes a difference for a national treasure.