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Water resources legislation holds much promise

The conference report on the Water Resources Development Act is the product of many, many hours of good-faith negotiations between the House and Senate and between Republicans and Democrats. Like any compromise, I don’t like everything in it; but the net effect is an important step forward in protecting against the devastation of future droughts in California and catastrophic wildfire that threatens Lake Tahoe.

It provides for $335 million for desperately needed surface water storage. It opens a new era of hatcheries to provide for burgeoning populations of endangered fish species. It adds flexibility to management of New Melones Reservoir and water transfers to assure water can be more efficiently moved to where it is most needed. It adds strong protection to Northern California area of origin water rights. It expedites review and approval of new projects. It updates flood control management criteria to make better use of our existing reservoirs.

I particularly want to highlight the provisions related to Lake Tahoe. For many years, we’ve spent enormous resources to adjust drainage in the basin to improve water clarity at the lake. The Senate version of the measure introduced this session by senators Dean Heller and Diane Feinstein continued this effort.

But the Heller-Feinstein bill neglected the most immediate environmental threat to Lake Tahoe, and that is catastrophic wildfire. The Senate bill had no provision for forest management, specifically for fire prevention.

The number of acres burned by wildfire in the Lake Tahoe Basin has increased each decade since 1973, including a 10-fold increase over the past decade. Eighty percent of the Tahoe Basin forests are now densely and dangerously overgrown. They are dying. At lower elevations, there are now four times as many trees as the land can support. Modeling by the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit warns that in two-thirds of the forest, conditions now exist for flame size and intensity that are literally explosive. If a super-fire of the size we’ve seen in other parts of the Sierra were to strike the Tahoe Basin, it could decimate the lake and its surroundings for a generation to come.

For this reason, Congressman Mark Amodei of Nevada and I introduced a bill aimed strictly at fire prevention. This measure is specifically designed — after extensive input from fire districts throughout the Tahoe region — to reduce excess fuel before it burns.

It provides for expediting collaborative fuel reduction projects consistent with the Lake Tahoe Land and Resource Management Plan and it calls for funds generated by timber sales and other fee-based revenues to stay in the Tahoe Basin to provide for further fuel management and other improvements.

This was falsely portrayed by left-wing activists in the region as a substitute for the Senate bill. As Congressman Amodei and I repeatedly made clear, it was designed to supplement that bill and to fill a very glaring deficiency that ignored the single greatest environmental hazard to the lake.

I am very pleased to note that the critical provisions of both bills — for lake clarity and fire prevention — are now in the conference report, thanks to the bipartisan negotiations between House and Senate negotiators, most notably by Sen. Feinstein and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

Unfortunately, in recent days, California Sen. Boxer has threatened to blindside this effort and destroy the fruit of these years of labor and endless hours of negotiation. She has threatened to assemble enough votes — not to put forward a positive and credible plan of her own to address these critical needs — but rather to ruin the painstaking negotiations of many others just as they are coming to fruition.

In the last four years, the King Fire, the Butte Fire, the Rough Fire and the Rim Fire have destroyed more than a thousand square miles of forests in the Sierra. If we don’t restore forest management in the Tahoe Basin now, the next fire could reduce its magnificent forests to cinders, and clog the lake with ash and debris for decades to come.

We can only pray that wiser heads prevail in the Senate and that this conference report is speedily adopted by both houses and signed by the president.

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Rep. Tom McClintock represents part of Madera County in the 4th Congressional District of California.

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