INCLINE VILLAGE -- U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said private and federal efforts are needed to improve the devastated economy at Lake Tahoe and clean up the lake and the surrounding environment.
Speaking 50 feet from the shore during the annual Lake Tahoe Summit, the Nevada Democrat touted the Travel Promotion Act as a way to attract more international visitors to the alpine lake shared by Nevada and California.
"Lake Tahoe is a special place, but it is not immune from what is happening around the country," Reid told several hundred guests at Sand Harbor State Park. "We saw 'for rent' signs in offices and in strip malls coming up here. So it is appropriate we expand our mission. We want to rebuild our economy here."
Through the Travel Promotion Act, signed by President Barack Obama in March, Reid said 6,000 new jobs will be created in Nevada and more foreign visitors will travel to Lake Tahoe and elsewhere.
Under the law, paid for by tourism businesses and a $10 fee paid by foreign visitors, plans will be developed to reverse a 10-year national decline in international tourism.
The population around Lake Tahoe has declined by 9,500 people in the past eight years, and 2,000 jobs have been lost since the start of the recession. Gaming revenue at the south shore casinos dropped 16.75 percent in the past fiscal year, in part because of the growing number of Indian casinos outside of Sacramento, Calif.
Unemployment ranges from 15 percent to 17 percent in the counties surrounding the lake.
Each year, the U.S. senators from California and Nevada host a summit to give a report card on the progress in improving the water quality at the lake and to reduce fire hazards in the surrounding forest.
The summits began in 1997 when President Bill Clinton, through efforts by Reid, visited the lake and promised federal help to improve the area.
Since that time, $1.5 billion in federal, state, local and private money has been spent to reduce pollution and erosion, thin the surrounding forest, improve streambeds and remove diseased trees.
Most of the $424 million federal funds used for lake improvements came from the sale of federal lands in Las Vegas. And Nevadans approved an $80 million bond issue for projects designed to improve the lake's clarity.
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told the crowd Tuesday that the cleanup effort has produced positive results.
She said that in 1968, scientists could see objects to the 102-foot depth of the lake. By 1997, the clarity had declined to 60 feet. But in 2009, studies found objects could be seen at 68 feet.
Feinstein and all Nevada and California senators, with Obama, are backing an as-yet unapproved $415 million federal bill to continue restoring the environment at the lake.
But with the economy in shambles and land sales in Las Vegas down, Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., said they might have to look for private donations to continue their efforts.
"We have to be careful what we do with money in these hard economic times," said Ensign, who spent his childhood at Stateline on the lake's south shore.
Ed Vogel/Las Vegas Review-Journal