RENO — The U.S. Forest Service is leaning toward abandoning plans to restore a small lake overlooking Lake Tahoe to the way it was when the rich and famous vacationed at the private enclave a half century ago and instead let it return to a natural wetland.
The federal government bought Incline Lake for $43.5 million in a land deal five years ago with the intention of repairing a small dam built in 1942 and refilling the scenic Sierra Nevada lake that sits at an elevation above 8,000 feet.
Forest Service officials drained it in 2009 because the dam was unstable and vulnerable to failure in the event of an earthquake.
But now the agency is seeking public comment on a preferred alternative that would leave most of the lake empty to capitalize on its rich system of natural ponds and marshes that are rare at such high elevations.
“That’s the direction we’re proposing to head, to remove the dam and restore the area,” Cheva Heck, spokeswoman for the Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, told the Reno Gazette-Journal.
While $5 million in federal funds was set aside in 2008 for possible reconstruction of the Incline Lake dam, seismic concerns would have prevented restoring the lake to its full splendor, Heck said. The Forest Service considered rebuilding a smaller dam to allow a smaller lake.
“We definitely couldn’t rebuild the dam at the same scale,” Heck said. “It would be a smaller lake. It would be different.”
Ultimately, planners determined there are sufficient recreational opportunities offered by other lakes in the region and that removal of the dam and restoration of 30 acres into a system of small- to medium-sized ponds, fens and marshes is the most preferable path forward, Heck said.
Dave Piccinini, owner of Reno’s Mark Fore and Strike Sporting Goods store, was disappointed to learn that a lake he thinks could offer a popular fishery for the region might not be restored.
“What a shame. I think that would be a great asset to have,” Piccinini said.
He questioned whether the government should have purchased the land if the lake will go away in the end.
“A lot of the value of that land had to do with the fact that lake existed,” Piccinini said. “I get frustrated with the government spending money on good property and making it a lesser property and then saying it’s OK.”
The more than 750-acre parcel, an island of private land surrounded by national forest, was purchased for its overall scenic and recreational value, not just for the now-drained lake, Heck said. Also, seismic hazards posed by the lake and its dam were unknown at the time the acquisition occurred.
The Forest Service has initiated a formal “scoping” process to collect public input through July 19 before a final decision on the property is made. Removal of the dam and restoration work could begin during the summer of 2015.
The agency has scheduled an open house to answer questions about the project at 5 p.m. July 8 at the Incline Village General Improvement District board room.