Climate change is impacting everyday life for Lake Tahoe’s locals: Rich and poor, old timers and newcomers. These year-round residents, whose jobs are often to make sure tourists enjoy Tahoe, are being forced to adapt in order to make it. For some, it's heart wrenching. But for others, it’s giving them a new vision for Tahoe’s future.
Stacy: “Alright, don’t hit max bet. Yeah, there you go. Pull it.”
[slot machine sound comes in]
Ezra: Lots of people come to Lake Tahoe to gamble.
E: zra: “I won two?”
Ezra: Growing up we couldn’t pass through Lake Tahoe without pulling over to put a few bucks into a slot machine at a casino like this one.
Stacy: “You can’t lose man.”
Ezra: “I know, lets just bet two. Let’s go big time. Woo, nerves. Oh, it’s time to go. I came out with the same amount of money.”
Ezra: Stacy Noyes is the President of Lakeside Inn and Casino in South Lake Tahoe. I’m with her on a weekday at around noon.
Stacy: “We’re the locals casino everyones at work. Graveyards fun too though because then all of the other dealers that just got off shift at 11 o’clock at night off the street will come down here.”
Ezra: Tahoe used to be one of the only places in America where you could gamble in a casino. Now there are concentrations of casinos on the north and south shores.
[casino sounds continue]
Ezra: Then Indian gaming came. This was a huge threat to Tahoe. Because people can now gamble close to their homes. Which brings us to today. Stacy says climate change is forcing even casinos to think differently. There’s often less snow, more sunny days and many casino guests now prefer to spend time outside instead of staring at a slot machine.
Stacy: “Casinos were cheap and cheerful, get people in with cheap food, cheap rooms, and there just naturally going to end up in the casino and play and that’s not the case anymore.”
Ezra: Ok that surprised me. Climate change is challenging the old way of doing things. Even for casinos. Businesses near the casinos were one of the first to make a move. Ski resorts started capitalizing on all those sunny days by creating more summer activities.
Stacy: “Thankfully Heavenly led the way first with their what, 80 million dollar investment. That really was a game changer and instead of just waiting for the summer volumes and the winter volumes of people.”
Ezra: Heavenly is a ski resort accessible from the casino strip in South Lake Tahoe. It now offers things like zip lining in the summer. Stacy says casinos are learning and benefiting from these big investments.
Stacy: We as casinos did not market all the great things that heavenly has to offer or the sleigh rides or the beach even. We wanted people in these walls and didn’t want them to leave.
Ezra: As a result, she says casinos are directly marketing the outdoors. Her casino has a whole page on it on their website. But Stacy says the biggest change of all is that longer summers, fluxuations and snowpack and people’s smaller appetite for gambling have forced casinos to work together.
Stacy: “It used to be fierce competition and we shared no information and we certainly wouldn't share employees. Now 50 percent more of my job is working collaboratively with the other general managers and it’s about the future and it’s about our community.”
[music comes up]
Ezra: The casino industry is just one of many unexpected places in Tahoe that climate change is disrupting. But casinos have money, but what happens if you’re a Tahoe local, work three jobs, and don’t have a huge savings. How do you survive?
[theme music drops]
Dan: “These aren’t just theories anymore.”
Stacy: “I don’t want the snow to go away.”
Simon: “Yes, Tahoe will change.”
MaryEllen: “I kind of feel like that endangered pika.” Don: “Tahoe doesn’t control climate change it’s a victim of it.”
Ezra: From Capital Public Radio. This is TahoeLand.
Laurel: “It always snowed by the third weekend in September, but that doesn’t happen anymore.”
McClintock: “I want to see our forests restored. So, Tahoe doesn’t burn the way Paradise did.”
Maddie: “Chasing the snow is a huge part.”
Devin: “It’s about the lake that’s why everyone is here.”
Jesse: “There are a lot of green lakes, there aren’t very many blue ones.”
Ezra: I’m Ezra David Romero. We’ve talked a ton about how Tahoe’s winter identity is changing. It’s affecting everyone around the lake. Rich and poor, old timers and new residents. But what I want to focus on is something that visitors may not think about. The locals who make sure tourists enjoy Tahoe. I’m talking about housekeepers, people who work in casinos and guys who make beer. The climate crisis is forcing them all to adapt in order to make it. You know, for some it’s heart wrenching, but for others it’s giving them a new vision for Tahoe’s future.
Welcome to TahoeLand.
[theme music comes to an end]
Ezra: A simple change in weather like a longer summer or too much snow in the winter can put entire families in jeopardy or force them to move out of Tahoe.
Laura Alvarez’s family of five is one of them. After 13 years in Tahoe they’re considering moving after her husband didn’t work for a month and a half.
Ezra: “Do you think your family will stay here?”
Laura: “I was thinking of going to Gardnerville. But my kids want to stay here. Because here is expensive we need to go to Reno for groceries.”
Ezra: Reno is more than an hour away from South Lake Tahoe. Her husband works in construction. He left a full-time job with low wages for seasonal work that pays better. But you see, it’s not always consistent.
Laura: “Cuando hay nieve y menos trabajo. Cuando no hay nieve mas trabajo.
Y secue para los casinos cuando es nieve es mas trabjabo…”
[Laura’s sound is lowered so Ezra can translate over her]
Ezra: Laura’s saying that if there’s a lot of snow there’s little work in construction and vice versa. She’s also saying that when it snows there’s plenty of work in the casino industry.
Bill: “It’s quite challenging for our community when the weather doesn’t come on time.”
Ezra: Bill Martinez is with the Family Resource Center. He’s talking about the Latino community and says about 40 percent of the people in South Lake Tahoe are Latino and many of them are from Jalisco, Mexico. That’s where Laura’s from.
He says living in Tahoe can be super tough, especially if you’re employed by industries that rely on tourism like hotels. He says, rents are high, there’s limited housing and people have to work multiple short-term jobs to make ends meet.
Bill: “With the changes in our global climate it makes it more difficult to predict when you’re going to be able to get fully employed for that season, whether it be winter or summer. If we get a heavy late winter then some of our other summer recreational activities won’t open up again until later in the season also.”
Ezra: He’s talking about things like marinas, campgrounds and trailheads. Bill says if the boom and bust weather cycle gets worse it may be hard for many low-income people to live in Tahoe.
Bill: “It’s one of the most beautiful places on earth but if you can’t make a living why would you continue to struggle year after year. Especially if your children are struggling also. To work three jobs and to put food on the table and to not have that family time is very challenging for our Latino community.”
Ezra: For Laura and her family the idea of moving is becoming more of a reality. When I spoke with her the family was dealing with landlord issues and also having a hard time finding enough work to pay their bills. It’s tough for her to work because she has kids and working would mean hiring a babysitter, but she says wages aren’t high enough for that.
Ezra: “Will you miss it? Lake Tahoe if you go?”
Laura: “Si, si.” Ezra: “When I drove by the lake I was like man, I want to live here.” Laura: “Si.” Ezra: “But, I don’t think I can afford it.” [everyone laughs]
Laura: “Si, es muy caro.”
Ezra: So, as we’ve laid out, it can be really hard to make it in Tahoe. Our data reporter Emily Zentner is here to explain more. What’s up Emily.
Emily: Hey Ezra.
Ezra: Let’s talk about jobs.
Emily: Well, the news isn’t great for jobs in Tahoe. The Tahoe Basin lost almost 2,500 jobs in the tourism and visitor serving industries between 2013 and 2015. That’s according to a 2017 report from the Tahoe Prosperity Center. And these jobs disappeared in the middle of that incredibly long drought that we had that just ended this year.
Ezra: That’s a ton of jobs in two years when there’s not that big of a population here.
Emily: It is a large amount of jobs to lose in two years and it had an impact on the local economy. About sixty percent of Tahoe’s economic output in a year comes from the tourism industry. So to see that kind of a loss in jobs in that industry, it’s a big deal. And we’re not in a drought right now, but droughts and other extreme climate events are going to be getting more intense in the future and that’s going to leave a lot of people who depend on seasonal work, really uncertain. I mean what if the season starts late, what if it ends early? Some years, it might not even happen at all. So these people are left wondering where there money’s going to come from in the next year.
Ezra: Yeah, and these workers are already vulnerable, right? You know, when I was in Tahoe earlier this year, I heard a lot of people use the term “locals season.” It’s sort of like “adult swim,” when tourists go home and Tahoe residents who have money and free time can enjoy the beaches and the fun without all the crowds. But all that means, it can be really hard for low income people or seasonal workers who depend on those jobs.
Emily: Yeah and that intense boom-bust cycle is something that Heidi Hill Drum from the Tahoe Prosperity Center would really like to see Tahoe work on.
Heidi: “I believe that having a workforce that is not feeling that they have to work 80 hours a week for two or three months to make all of their money over the course of a season or in the case of a business, feeling that they have to work their workers over time for three months in the summer or three months in the winter. I think we would look at a more diversified economy as being supportive of both the community and economic progress.”
Ezra: It’s not just Tahoe thats seeing this affordability crisis. Right? There’s cities across California and Nevada that are going through it. Places like Reno and Las Vegas.
Ezra: But can you drill down what this looks like in Tahoe?
Emily: I don’t think it surprise anyone to hear that housing in Tahoe is super unaffordable for the people who live there full time. Even gas and groceries there are more expensive which you see when you go up there and try to gas up your car. In a balanced housing market, half the people who live somewhere are able to afford to buy a medium priced home. But, in Tahoe, in 2017, only 21 percent of people could afford that, according to the Tahoe Prosperity Center.
Ezra: That seems like a really small number. Is that because Tahoe is somewhat, just like, a vacationers paradise?
Emily: It is in part. So the interesting thing about Tahoe, is that while housing there is really expensive for people who are trying to live there full time and make it on a Tahoe salary, it’s actually kind of a bargain vacation market for people who live in other places.
So, according to data I got from Zillow, South Lake Tahoe this summer, if you were looking for a home, you’d see a median price of about $440,000. Which is a lot, but it’s really low compared to somewhere like Aspen, where they would be looking at a median home price of almost $1.7 million.
Ezra: But as you drive around the lake, the houses in the north shore seem to get bigger and bigger. It seems like the housing prices would be a lot higher there.
Emily: Yeah, so, first off, just to lay it out there, these are median home prices. So there’s going to be homes that are much cheaper than this, there's also going to be homes that are a lot more expensive than this. So those crazy mansions you sometimes see in Tahoe, they’re obviously not going for about $400,000. And up in the north, a place like Incline Village, is actually on the higher end of Tahoe’s housing market. But even on the higher end of Tahoe’s housing market, the median home price is way lower than Aspen, Vail, or even San Francisco. Skylar Olsen, whos Zillow’s Director of Economic Research, explained it to me.
Skylar: “If we're talking about the secondary home market, you know, those homes could be very affordable to other places, other people in the country, right, they're buying their secondary property from somewhere else. You know, they're bringing the bigger incomes from LA, incomes from San Francisco, incomes from Boston, incomes from other places, right. And so those there can't always afford those properties.”
Emily: In some places around the lake, the majority of housing is owned by second homeowners. In the part of Tahoe that sits in Placer County, 93 percent of the housing was taken up in the vacation home market in 2017. That’s according to the Tahoe Prosperity Center. In the part of Tahoe in El Dorado County which includes South Lake Tahoe, it was 78 percent in 2017. So, in a lot of these places around the lake, the people who own homes, are not the people who are living and working there full time.
Ezra: Yeah, I mean for some people, like vacation home owners or even us who go to Tahoe for day trips or the weekend, we might not be invested as well. You know, it’s a beautiful place to swim and recreate but we might not see all the issues or problems going on. So it sounds like this is a different reality for the people who live there or these workers who depend on these jobs.
Emily: It is. When I’m up in Tahoe and I’m swimming or hiking, it’s not in the forefront of my mind how these neighborhoods are doing, what kind of things are going on there, what efforts are happening to improve Tahoe as a place to live. But for the people who live there full time, that's something that they worry about. So if you want to go deep on these issues and learn a little bit more, you can head to capradio.org/tahoelandtourism where we lay it out on some graphs and you’re also going to find a link to that Tahoe Prosperity Center report that I’ve been mentioning.
Ezra: Thank you Emily for explaining all this to us.
Emily: Thanks Ezra.
[music transitions to background audio of South Lake Brewing Co.]
Ezra: “So, what are we drinking?”
Ethan: “That’s the citra. The questing citra single hop IPA.” Ezra/Ethan: “Cheers.”
[glasses clink together]
Ezra: Okay, if you’re like me all this is pretty harsh to hear. That’s why I’m grabbing a beer. I’m at South Lake Brewing Company. They’re known for hoppy beers.
Ezra: “It’s definitely good.”
Devin: “Questing is really good. Obviously the fog nozel.”
Ezra: “It’s very orangey.”
Ezra: Even the new things in Tahoe like its dozen or so breweries and pubhouses aren’t spared from the swings in weather. This year was a big snow year. But it came late.
Ethan: “If the weather’s really good. If the winter’s really good then skiing is good and we get people up here. If the winter is really bad then it’ll be a long winter for us.”
Ezra: Ethan Lennox is the lead brewer. He says the lack of snow in December and January was tough on business, but then the snow hit hard. And all that heavy snow caused problems
Ethan: “So, this year in February we had a lot of issues with our production schedule mostly because we’d go weeks at a time where we couldn’t get deliveries out of Reno. Trucks were having to turn around on the highways.”
Ezra: Even still Ethan admits all that snow is ultimately good for business.
Ethan: “Next year we’re probably going to be banking on the fact that a lot of people are going to book vacations for next year knowing that this year is a good year. But if next year is not a very good year than that’s going to hurt for multiple years. We’re not going to get those incremental tourists coming up.”
Ezra: This brewhouse is interesting because they can withstand the blurring of winter and summer. They do good business in the summer. That’s because about 70 percent of all tourists visit Tahoe when it’s hot.
Ethan: “During the summer when they hike and bike they’re really thirsty and they’re coming in here to drink. Especially if the mountain biking season goes long theirs phenomenal trails just down the street where people can ride their bike from here.”
Ezra: Two dudes that want to capitalize on this idea of more sunny days in Tahoe are Corey Rich and Chris McNamara. They moved from Sacramento and Marin to South Lake about 15 years ago.
To me they represent a cultural shift in Tahoe because of climate change. Some locals are becoming less reliant on the tourism economy. That’s because they are remote workers and others have started companies that don’t depend on recreation.
Corey: “What I love about Tahoe in general is that I was able to work for a few hours this morning. Quickly drop my daughter off at school, run into the office, high-five everyone, say hello, check-in, and here we are 45 minutes later standing at the base of a cliff.”
[climbing sounds come up]
Ezra: The cliff is Castle Rock about 20 minutes from South Lake Tahoe.
E: zra: “Alright, I’ll face my fears.” Corey: “Alright, have fun. Take your time look around.”
Ezra: They say it’s an easy to moderate climb and I’m not afraid of that, but sometimes repelling back down freaks me out.
Ezra: “I’m not sure where to put this foot.”
Ezra: These guys have a big vision. They want to boost opportunities for people in Tahoe so they don’t have to work multiple jobs just to get by.
Corey: “It's sort of the ultimate outdoor playground. But it's also just the lake is the key.. It's sort of the best of both worlds you have that mountain recreation bike trails. And then you have a lake.”
Ezra: Corey and Chris feel like Tahoe is still an affordable place to live and maybe buy a house. But that’s in a two-person home, with decent paying jobs. This is what Emily talked about. A place like South Lake Tahoe is affordable compared to other destinations like Aspen or Park City, but not necessarily to people that already live there.
Many locals say it can be really tough to make it in Tahoe where the median home price is around half a million dollars. But it’s much higher in places like Incline Village at around $1 million dollars.
Chris: “It's affordable depending on your median income. And so when you have an economy that is so dominated by minimum wage and slightly more than minimum wage jobs then yes it is very hard to live here for sure. But if you look at a family of two that combined makes somewhere near one hundred thousand dollars and what their life looks like in the Bay Area or even Sacramento versus here. That's where it's dramatically more affordable.”
Ezra: This new Tahoe that they’re describing is already gaining some momentum. There’s even a tech-hub in South Lake town called Co-Work Tahoe that’s attracting remote workers.
Corey and Chris’ idea doesn’t include everyone here in Tahoe. It focuses on boosting the middle class. It could leave out low-income workers who need multiple jobs to remain in Tahoe.
I wouldn’t say their vision discludes low-income people on purpose and if there’s a way to include them, they’d be down. They just want to see Tahoe become an economy that isn’t regulated by whether or not there’s a good snowfall or none at all.
Chris: “If you kind of step back and look at what's happened over the last 15 years. Yeah. We have a climbing gym now. We have a Whole Foods coming in. We have all these things that have kind of. If you told someone that all those things were going to happen in 1970 when the casinos were kind of in their peak they'd be like, nah this is just a gambling town, I don’t know what you’re talking about, but that fact that it now has become sort of a recreation town is pretty cool.”
Ezra: Corey and Chris believe in this idea so much so they’ve bought the rights to call Tahoe, The Outdoor Capital of the World.
Chris: “This should be an economy based around all the sustainable recreation that's possible to do here and all the growing number of jobs that can really be based anywhere. For example, Corey's production company could have been in the Bay Area but it could also just as easily have been here. And so the idea is to kind of bring back that middle class to have the economy still be very based in tourism. But to have it much more diversified so that when there is a bad snow year or when the economy tanks the community doesn't get hammered like it has over the last couple of decades when those things happen.”
Ezra: These guys want visitors to leave Tahoe thinking, “How do I convince my boss to let me work remotely in Tahoe?”
Ezra: “I think I’m gonna come down. Ok. This is the part I hate. I’m ready. Woo. Don’t like this at all. But it’s actually not that terrible.”
Ezra: To become a real outdoor recreation hub, they think Tahoe needs to evolve.
Ezra: “I even scraped my knee.” Corey: “I know saw that, a little blood. That’s kind of a right of passage.” Ezra: “Well, thanks for forcing me.” Corey: “Yeah, you did great.”
Ezra: And evolving just might mean Tahoe needs to be more than a party place.
Chris: “We think of it as an outdoor capital. But if you ask most of my friends from the Bay Area we're still Vegas in the mountains. We're still where you'd throw a bachelor party. That's great but it's also not what we want this place to stand for. It seems like you take all this natural beauty around us. It should stand for I think a little more than an epic bachelor party like it should be about how do you create world class experiences with your friends and family.”
Ezra: The people of Tahoe have a decision to make. How will communities, rich poor or middle income survive as the global climate crisis creates huge pressure locally. Some ideas aim to boost or bring in more outsiders into Tahoe. But that doesn't help everyone who calls Tahoe home. Like Laura, who we met earlier. All this has got me thinking about what a local tourism leader told me, Tahoe needs to grow up and maybe that means realizing that everyone is interconnected here in Tahoe. The only way to make smarter choices about this place’s future is if everyone gets involved.
No matter what kind of job you have or what part of Tahoe that you live in, there is one unifying factor that is a major threat to tourists and residents alike. It’s not bears or tourism.
Ezra: “Is Tahoe fire ready?” Susie: [LAUGHS] “No, there’s still a lot to treat in the forest. I think after the camp fire it's really sinking in to most people in the Sierra Nevada. We’re all feeling a little nervous and scared.”
Ezra: Our next episode is all about fire. And stick around after the credits for a Tahoe Tidbit about how climate change is forcing the forest service to re-envision when to open trails.
TahoeLand is edited by Nick Miller. Sally Schilling is our podcast producer. Our Digital Editor is Chris Hagan. Emily Zentner is TahoeLand’s data reporter. Kacey Sycamore is collecting your questions about Tahoe and answering them.
Our web site is built by Renee Thompson, Veronika Nagy and Katie Kidwell.
Linnea Edmeier is the executive editor. Joe Barr is our Chief Content Officer. And our associate producer is Gabriela Fernandez.
And I want to give a big shout out to someone whos helped this podcast a lot. His name is Chris Bruno, and he works in marketing at CapRadio.
Our music is by artist Charlesthefirst. He’s from Tahoe.
To make sure you don’t miss any episodes, subscribe on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.
Check out our website capradio.org/tahoeland for videos, photos, additional stories and more.
I’m Ezra David Romero…. Thanks for listening to TahoeLand... from Capital Public Radio.
[theme music comes to end]
Ezra: And I’m back. This time I’m in charge of the Tahoe TidBit. All these extra sunny days in Tahoe are challenging the crews that manage trails for the Forest Service. Often there’s no snow on the ground, but restrooms, parking lots and trailheads are still gated off.
[hiking sounds in background]
Ezra: I’m hiking with Jacob Quinn on the Tahoe Mountain Road Trailhead. Jacob’s the trail’s program manager for the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit with the Forest Service.
Jacob: “This is one of the first trail systems that opens up in the year. For me after a big winter like this I'm ready to get some dirt under my feet.”
Ezra: The seven or so miles of trail leads to a lookout that’s stunning. At the top you can see the lake, South Lake Tahoe, and Fallen Leaf Lake.
Ezra: “What are these these orange looking plants?”
Jacob: “Which ones are you talking about.”
Ezra: “These trees that are like kind of orange on top.” Jacob: “So these are willows. Those are a little bit of a wetter area. So we've got some willows coming in a little bit of riparian vegetation.
Ezra: “It's really pretty.”
Ezra: I’m here with Jacob because he says more and more people are coming to Tahoe for summer recreation, not just for skiing. There around 380 miles of trails managed by the Forest Service in the Tahoe Basin. Jacob lives here and often hears that trailheads are closed when visitors think they should be open.
Jacob: “People who come to the area for recreation are persistent when they drive up from a couple hours away they get here they see a gate they don't want to stop and not use that facility. That was their plan. So we hear that demand from them and then we recognize that there's opportunities to provide a longer season.”
Ezra: Jacob’s working on a plan to switch over from an old policy where trailheads open on the same date every year to a new strategy to open and close gates based on conditions. This could have a big impact on locals that manage these trails and facilities.
Jacob: “The challenge with that is our staffing levels. So if we open a facility but we don't have the staff to clean the bathrooms to provide a safe clean hygienic experience for folks, take out the trash. That's not great management and that also creates issues.”
Ezra: But Jacob says this could change if they get funding. The new policy could go into effect as soon as this winter. When he left I finished the hike.
Jacob: “: If you want to do the steep part on the way up you would just turn right there and go up Valley View and that'll take you within about 20 minutes or so to the top. And you'll get this great view and be beautiful and there signs up there and then you'll just take Tahoe Mountain Trail back down so you'll be able to complete that loop.”
Ezra: “OK, so just follow the loop.” Jacob: “Yeah.”
Ezra: And that’s what I did.
[hiking sounds come in]
E: zra: “Alright, I think I’m over this mountain. There’s the lake. Woo. It looks like it’s raining down there. Oh, there’s South Lake.”
Ezra: That was an awesome hike, I’d definitely do it again.But this time, I’m really out of here. Thanks for listening to TahoeLand.