Keeping Tahoe Blue?
Forest Service heavy equipment results in significant erosion into Lake Tahoe streams -- and five water quality violations
October 20, 2009
The Forest Service was cited repeatedly by the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board recently, for causing significant erosion into Lake Tahoe streams at five separate locations, resulting from Forest Service activities in the basin in 2009. The most serious violations occurred as a result of salvage logging in the Angora Fire area. Other violations occurred at Fallen Leaf Lake Campground, Pope Beach on Lake Tahoe, Valhalla Pier, and Tallac Creek Bridge. The Angora Fire violation appears to be the result of Forest Service agency personnel attempts to streamline and push ahead with salvage logging projects in response to relaxation of environmental protections that have resulted from political interference with agency procedures - even when weather conditions clearly should have precluded any ground disturbing activities.
See two stories documenting the violations below, from the Sacramento Bee, and read the Angora Hazard Tree logging violation citation here. There are several photos of the violations and the file is 5 MB in size, so it may take a few minutes to download.
Forest Service hit with violations at Tahoe projects
Nov 3, 2009
The U.S. Forest Service has been cited for water quality violations at five Lake Tahoe projects, including a controversial logging operation in the 2007 Angora fire burn area.
Several violations caused significant erosion into Lake Tahoe streams, according to the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, which issued the notices. Erosion is a key cause of declining clarity in the storied alpine lake.
The Forest Service disputes some of the findings by the water board.
Any projects at Tahoe that disturb the soil are required to maintain erosion-control devices and to stop work at project sites by Oct. 15. They're also required to ensure erosion-control measures are in place when a storm is forecast.
Those things allegedly didn't happen in the five projects that received violation notices, issued between Oct. 19 and 26 after inspections by water board staff.
The most serious violation claimed by the water board involves a project to remove "hazard trees" burned in the Angora fire in South Lake Tahoe.
Inspectors visited the project site Oct. 13 and 14 during a storm, and said they found heavy erosion from logging areas into Angora Creek, a tributary of Lake Tahoe. They said they found little effort to prevent erosion.
"It was mostly the lack of any kind of control measures that stood out," said Lauri Kemper, supervising engineer at the water board.
On another visit Oct. 15, Lahontan inspectors quizzed two Forest Service employees – a watershed specialist and project inspector – about rules for installing erosion controls.
"Neither ... employee could articulate the process," the violation notice states.
Cheva Heck, spokeswoman for the Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, acknowledged her agency didn't do enough to prevent erosion in the Angora logging area.
"We do agree we failed to prepare that area adequately for the storm," she said. "It's certainly been a long and difficult project, but we aren't offering any excuses."
She said, however, that her agency did nothing wrong in the four other projects that got violation notices.
Of these, the most serious of the disputed violations involves a bridge being built across Tallac Creek. Water quality officials visited the project during the same storm, and said they found some erosion controls had failed.
Heck said problems at the site were caused, in part, by an underground drainage failure triggered by the storm that could not have been avoided.
"In four of the five cases, we are not going to be concurring with Lahontan's conclusions," she said.
At an Oct. 19 inspection, the bridge contractor told inspectors the Forest Service had not informed him of the Oct. 15 deadline to winterize the project site, the water board reported.
State water law does not allow Lahontan to fine federal agencies for first offenses, only for subsequent violations at the same projects. However, Lahontan requested cleanup and abatement work in each of the five cases.
Logging in fire area revives Tahoe fears
GROUPS POINT TO FOULED STREAMS, DENUDED SLOPES
May 26, 2009
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE – A forest after a fire can be like a heart-attack victim: Sometimes the recovering patient looks worse after life-saving surgery.
So it is with the forest burned by the June 2007 Angora fire in South Lake Tahoe.
After a first season of intensive logging around Seneca Pond – ignition point for the fire that destroyed 254 homes – the burn area looks like that patient in post-op: Attached to machines, disfigured by ugly stitches and leaking fluids.
Environmental groups are crying foul over a U.S. Forest Service project to remove burned trees along roads and trails in the 3,100-acre fire area.
The Forest Service says the trees were a threat because they could topple on unwary hikers. Backers of the logging say the former burn zone will be better for all the work.
Critics fear the project bodes ill for a bigger plan to thin 68,000 acres of overgrown forest surrounding Lake Tahoe in order to avoid future severe fires.
Logging rules were streamlined to ease this work, even as officials acknowledged that if it's not done carefully, Tahoe's famous water clarity could be at risk.
This conflict looms larger as another fire season begins.
On a recent visit to the Angora burn area, The Bee saw fragile stream zones strewn with logging debris. Logged slopes and stream crossings leaked sediment into Angora Creek, which flows into Lake Tahoe.
Wildflowers, manzanita, songbirds and woodpeckers have returned vigorously in the burn area. But few trees were left in the logged areas to serve as habitat.
"It totally stuns even me, and I've been looking at bad logging for 25 years," said Craig Thomas, executive director of Sierra Forest Legacy, a coalition of conservation groups. "And we're supposed to be in some environmental wonderland here at Tahoe."
Thomas crouched beside a tributary to Angora Creek lined with algae and baked by the sun on a recently clear-cut slope along the Gunmount Trail. Snowmelt ran in sheets off the slope, threatening to flush sediment into Tahoe's headwaters.
Officials at the various agencies that police Tahoe's water quality say this logging project followed the rules and does not threaten the lake.
"There are no water quality issues. The water is clean," said Douglas Cushman, a senior water resources control engineer at the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board. He added, however, that no one from his staff has visited the site since the end of winter.
"There is, indeed, a lot of (logging) material on the ground," he acknowledged.
The Forest Service says work isn't finished in some logged areas, including the one lamented by Thomas. The logging contractor, Smith Crane & Rigging Inc., based in Reno, must return to remove and scatter logging debris and rehabilitate trails, said Cheva Heck, spokeswoman for the Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.
In other words, treatment isn't done, and the patient is expected to look better eventually.
The logging here was done during winter, atop the snowpack, to minimize erosion.
But logging vehicles were not excluded from stream zones at trail crossings, contrary to water-quality rules in the Tahoe basin. In fact, some trees were cut out of the waters of Angora Creek itself.
Additional logging starts soon in other parts of the burn area, notably at the north end, near Highway 89.
"Our watershed hydrologist went out to the project a couple of times each week to ensure that snow conditions were adequate and (stream) crossings maintained," Heck said via e-mail. "The contractor was fully in compliance."
The project was approved by the Forest Service last year under an exclusion from normal timber harvest rules designed to expedite recovery after a fire. Those rules allowed logging machines to work in stream zones as long as they stayed on the trail.
The project was reviewed by Lahontan and the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency under their "timber waiver" program. Both agencies reviewed the project before and during logging.
Two years after the 2007 Angora Fire in South Lake Tahoe the burned areas look devastated by the logging practices that came afterwards.
The timber waiver is designed to streamline rules to speed up hazardous tree removal. One way this happens: The Forest Service is allowed to self-report compliance with water-quality rules before and during the project. No independent field reporting is required by Lahontan or TRPA.
The Forest Service hasn't filed a progress report since the end of winter, and another isn't due until July 15.
On March 13, the three agencies jointly decided to stop logging after a visit to the same stretch of the Gunmount Trail, south of Seneca Pond. They found the snowpack in a shrunken and melting state, raising the risk of erosion.
The contractor has not returned to that area since, and probably won't until late summer, after the soil dries, Cushman said. That's why the work appears unfinished.
"The snow and soil conditions, they just weren't right to bring equipment in," said Dennis Oliver, a TRPA spokesman.
A different set of rules will govern the larger project that looms in the years ahead: thinning trees on 68,000 acres of overgrown forest throughout the Tahoe basin.
After the Angora fire, a commission established by the governors of California and Nevada recommended further regulatory streamlining to accelerate this larger project.
In May 2008, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued an emergency proclamation pressing TRPA and Lahontan to redistribute authority over tree-thinning.
In the deal they signed in December, the water police – Lahontan – retained enforcement power but ceded authority to approve and monitor timber harvest plans to TRPA. This process will govern most of the basin-wide tree thinning in the years ahead.
"I'm absolutely sure there is a diligent job being done by the Forest Service to take all measures necessary to protect water quality," said John Upton, a fire commission member who lost a rental property in the Angora fire. "I think that risk is far outweighed by the risk of a serious fire."
The agreement between the agencies did not specify how TRPA would monitor water quality during logging. As a result, environmental groups in January appealed the decision to the State Water Resources Control Board.
On Thursday, the board rejected their petition.
"There's no reason the water quality regulators need to be shoved aside when you're trying to protect the rarest water body on Earth," said Thomas of Sierra Forest Legacy.
Read more on the story, with video and photos, on the Sacramento Bee website.