A Climate Adaptation Strategy for the Lake Tahoe Basin


SB1 Adaptation Planning Grant: Initial Case Study

Challenge: Developing plans and strategies




As one of the nation’s premier outdoor recreation destinations, the Lake Tahoe Basin’s economy relies on a scenic and pristine alpine setting as the basis of year-round, nature-based tourism and a robust real estate market.  However, the Basin’s geography and transportation network – particularly its limited number of access and egress routes – are particularly vulnerable to climate change and associated extreme events.  These events include severe drought, wildfire, bark beetle infestation leading to tree mortality, and severe storms, and tend to occur precisely during peak visitor times (e.g., February avalanches and flooding, and July wildfires).  The Basin’s visitors and communities, including disadvantaged communities in South Lake Tahoe and Kings Beach, face severe risk of being cut off and stranded during weather-related emergencies exacerbated by climate change, with commensurate impacts to the economy.  The California Tahoe Conservancy (Conservancy) is developing an inter-agency climate adaptation strategy for the Lake Tahoe Basin (Basin), and this project represents the transportation element of the strategy. The aim of this project is to develop a strategy that provides recommendations for addressing climate adaptation deficiencies, serving as a basis for updates to several critical regional plans and programs, including the Regional Transportation Plan, the Sustainability Action Plan (per Senate Bill 375), and Area Plans.

This project will downscale climate model projections for the Basin, assess the vulnerability of the Basin’s infrastructure, transportation network, and economy to climate change-related impacts such as rising temperatures and extreme events, and develop an interagency and multi-sectoral climate adaptation strategy. Local jurisdictions in the Basin will be able to draw upon the climate projections, vulnerability assessment, and strategy when addressing climate change adaptation in their general plans, as required by Senate Bill 379.

The key project deliverables are a basin-wide vulnerability assessment and climate adaptation strategy. The project will run from May 1, 2018 through December 31, 2019.

Lead Agency and Partnerships

The lead agency is the Conservancy. In addition, the Tahoe Transportation District (TTD), will provide technical expertise throughout the project.

Additionally, this project consists of a Science and Engineering Team (University of California at Davis, University of Nevada at Reno, Desert Research Institute, Pacific Southwest Research Station, and U.S. Geological Survey), a State Agency Partners Group (e.g., Caltrans, CAL FIRE), and a Peer Partners Group (e.g., Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team and Public Utility Districts).


Executive Orders S-13-08 and B-30-15 direct State agencies to identify climate change vulnerabilities and develop adaptation strategies through coordination of the State’s climate change adaptation strategy (Safeguarding California Plan), thus indicating a need for a Basin-wide climate adaptation plan that is consistent with the California Transportation Plan 2040, and the 2017 Regional Transportation Plan.

The close proximity of urban centers to the forest, coupled with high visitation rates and constricted transportation routes, make the Basin particularly vulnerable to climate change and extreme event impacts. While the project did not emerge from a specific community-based effort, a common concern over the vulnerability of these communities acts as a driver for this project.

Engagement Process

Our stakeholders include State, Federal, and local agencies in the Basin, as well as the public (the communities and businesses that rely on Lake Tahoe’s natural resources and transportation network). In particular the Basin contains several low-income communities (defined by Assembly Bill 1550 as census tracts with median household incomes at or below 80 percent of the statewide median income), including South Lake Tahoe and Kings Beach. In addition, multiple communities in Lake Tahoe have been designated disadvantaged areas based on the California Health Disadvantage Index (HDI). These disadvantaged communities also have the highest transit ridership in the Basin and suffer from current transportation deficiencies. Climate change exacerbates the effects of drought and storms, placing these communities and the transportation network at risk from extreme events.

The Conservancy and its partners will launch a collaborative interagency and stakeholder process to develop and implement the strategy. We will assemble a Science and Engineering Team, a State Agency Partners Group, and a Peer Partners Group to gather input and develop the climate model projections, vulnerability assessment, and strategy. We will also host two public meetings in low income communities on the north and shores of Lake Tahoe to solicit input on transportation vulnerabilities and discuss our findings at key points in the project. Feedback gathered from these meetings will be incorporated into the vulnerability assessment and highlighted during development of action plan.

Climate Impact Area

Impacts from climate change include increased wildfire, drought, flooding, and avalanches. The Basin’s economy relies on year-round, nature-based tourism and a robust real estate market.  However, due to the Basin’s geography and transportation network, visitors and local communities face severe risk of isolation during extreme events, with commensurate impacts to the economy. 

This project will address climate impacts by using downscaled climate projections provided by University of California Davis/Tahoe Environmental Research Center to assess impacts to the transportation network.  The strategy will enable integration across agency plans, create institutional efficiencies, and improve the effectiveness of the individual initiatives.  In addition, the strategy will contribute to statewide transportation-related emissions reductions while minimizing future climate-related disruptions to the highways.

Our project will include agency-specific monitoring using existing protocols. In collaboration with agency partners we will identify performance measures for the transportation network. We will assess indicators of resilience for their appropriateness and potential application for this project. These will provide a basis for periodically updating the assessment and strategy. 

The strategy will consider carbon flux in forest vegetation, meadows, and riparian systems, and their potential for carbon sequestration. It will also help identify opportunities to accelerate the implementation and adoption of alternative transportation options.

Funding Source

Caltrans provided a climate adaptation planning grant (SB1) for $359,756 to develop the vulnerability assessment and action plan for the built environment and the transportation network. The Conservancy contributed $212,000 for a vulnerability assessment and action plan for the natural environment, and project management. The current investment is $571,756. The funding needed is $60,000.

Research and Data

The Conservancy will use state resources such as Safeguarding California, Climate Adaptation Planning Tool, California Transportation Plan 2040, California Adaptation Planning Guide, and other area plans to inform the project.

We will identify straightforward climate adaptation performance measures as they relate to the transportation network.  These will provide a basis for periodically updating the assessment and strategy to incorporate accomplishments and shortcomings to date, as well as emerging science. 

The downscaled climate projections used will come from University of California Davis/Tahoe Environmental Research Center.


The major challenges are synchronizing the various analyses and funding sources and articulating the preexisting and concurrent planning efforts conducted by institutional partners in the Basin. The project will utilize consultants to assist in addressing both of these challenges through project management and lead researcher.


The deliverables are the vulnerability assessment and climate adaptation strategy. Our aim is that once the strategy is developed our agency partners will integrate the findings into updated plans and programs.


The framework for the vulnerability assessment, the structure of the adaptation strategy, and the agency and stakeholder engagement process is one that can easily be modified to meet the specific criteria and needs of other areas.

Additional Resources

Safeguarding California
Climate Adaptation Planning Tool
California Transportation Plan 2040
California Adaptation Planning Guide

Further Information

Contact Whitney Brennan (530-543-6054; whitney.brennan@tahoe.ca.gov).