After decades of shattered expectations at Lake Oroville, can residents trust state?

Spectacular views of Oroville Dam spillway flowing again from trickle to 30,000 cfs

The California Department of Water Resources restarted the outflow from the Lake Oroville flood control spillway on Wednesday morning (May 11, 2017) at 9 a.m. beginning with water flows at 1,000 cubic feet per second and holding at 30,000 cfs by 1
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The California Department of Water Resources restarted the outflow from the Lake Oroville flood control spillway on Wednesday morning (May 11, 2017) at 9 a.m. beginning with water flows at 1,000 cubic feet per second and holding at 30,000 cfs by 1

There was going to be a steam train – and a monorail. Plus a major resort featuring a 250-seat restaurant and a 1,000-seat amphitheater. As many as 5 million visitors a year would show up.

When it came to wooing Butte County about the construction of Oroville Dam, state officials weren’t shy about setting grand expectations. In return for losing entire communities and thousands of acres of taxable land, the region would become home to California’s second-largest reservoir, Lake Oroville, and a tourist destination akin to Disneyland.

“The construction boom in Oroville is over,” Gov. Ronald Reagan said at the dam’s dedication ceremony in May 1968. “But it will be followed by even larger growth as recreation brings millions to the lake.”

Then the state’s dam builders left, leaving behind a string of shattered expectations and half-kept promises. The train, monorail and amphitheater, spelled out in 1960s-era state documents, never got built; neither did the fancy restaurant. Oroville became another hardscrabble Gold Rush town.

The state’s inability to live up to its part of the bargain has long fostered resentment, frustration and cynicism about the California Department of Water Resources. February’s spillway failures at Oroville Dam, which forced thousands of residents to abandon their homes and jobs for two days, only made relations worse.

Three months after the emergency evacuation, some ask why they should trust the state to keep them safe after it spent decades not keeping its word.

“The burden of this dam was supposed to come with certain benefits … a whole lot of which have not been fulfilled,” Oroville resident Tasha Levinson, 68, told DWR officials at a tense town-hall meeting earlier this month. “Among the things you can do is start keeping your promises.”

State officials insist they will make Oroville Dam safe, and say the 1960s documents were planning concepts, not literal promises. But they acknowledge they have to overcome historic skepticism.

“I know that is going to be a big ask on our part,” said DWR Chief Deputy Director Cindy Messer at the town-hall meeting.

‘It never happened’

There was a certain irony that DWR held its town-hall meeting at Oroville Municipal Auditorium, a musty, century-old building with an exterior covered in rectangles of painted-over graffiti.

“There was supposed to be a train right here,” said Butte County Supervisor Bill Connelly, a longtime area resident, as he surveyed the cracked pavement of the auditorium’s modest parking lot.

In 1966, state officials wrote a memo pledging to build 1,500 parking spaces outside the auditorium. They’d need those spaces to accommodate the steam train that would shuttle hordes of visitors to the reservoir six miles away. Once there, they’d hop on a monorail for a tour of the lake’s multitude of facilities.

“It never happened,” Connelly said.

One in four Oroville residents lives below the federal poverty line. Connelly said many of them occupy low-income housing left behind decades ago by dam construction workers.

A roofing contractor given to swearing, Connelly refused to attend DWR’s town hall meeting. It would have made him too angry and bring back memories of DWR’s public relations blitz in the early 1960s, when, he said, state officials promised a mother lode of recreation in return for flooding huge swaths of county land.

DWR officials even made a presentation to his fourth-grade class, he said.

“We’ve always been shorted on this thing,” he said.

Dam repairs have forced the closure of the reservoir’s main boat launch, which sits adjacent to the emergency spillway, for the next two summers. Some roads and hiking trails around the dam also have been blocked off to the public. DWR officials have warned they might permanently reduce public access because of terrorist concerns.

These issues are fueling more anger toward DWR. Bill Harper, manager of privately run Bidwell Canyon Marina, is upset by the state’s plans to keep water levels relatively low this summer as spillway repairs get under way. Low water will make conditions more difficult for boaters.

“I’ve got five years of drought and now I’ve got this,” Harper said during a recent meeting of the Oroville Recreation Advisory Committee, a citizens group that meets with DWR officials. “You’re basically putting me out of business.”

DWR official Eric See told him the state will try to “accommodate the recreation season,” but repairs and public safety must come first.

It’s not that Lake Oroville and its 167 miles of shoreline are a complete backwater. The reservoir’s boat ramps, beaches, equestrian trails and campgrounds drew nearly 1.2 million visitors last year. The tower at the visitors center offers panoramic views.

But area residents say the lake is a shadow of what it could have been. Many of the promised campsites and other amenities have yet to materialize, and the tourism boom has been less than advertised. In the minds of locals, Oroville has been managed to benefit Bay Area residents and Southern Californians whose water is stored behind the dam.

“Billions of dollars flow in the water down south, yet we can hardly get $5 million, $10 million a year to build out the infrastructure,” said Kevin Zeitler, a financial adviser who chairs the recreation committee. “We’re the ugly cousins that they throw scraps to. This should be the best facility in the state of California.”

Butte County surrendered 40,000 acres of taxable land to the project. Butte was the only Northern California county where a majority of residents voted in favor of the bonds to finance Oroville and the rest of the State Water Project in 1960.

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Curry-Bidwell Bar State Park, site of a historic bridge and tollhouse, was a popular summer swimming destination before the area was flooded for Lake Oroville. California Department of Water Resources

burning of bidwell bar
The Bidwell Bar store was burned, along with the rest of the town, in 1964 to make way for the inundation of the area by Lake Oroville. Courtesy of Larry R. Matthews

A pair of DWR blueprints released in 1966 and 1967 spells out the grand vision for Lake Oroville. There would be 10 separate recreation areas, state-of-the-art boating facilities and other recreational facilities. The crown jewels were the amphitheater and restaurant.

“It is estimated that 60 percent of all visitors to the facilities will utilize the monorail and that peak hourly use will approximate 1,000 persons,” DWR said in an April 1966 report, two years before the dam was completed.


“This was going to be a combination dam, reservoir, Disney World,” said Butte County Counsel Bruce Alpert.

Lime Saddle
A 1966 site plan for the Lime Saddle camping area shows 295 camp sites. Only 45 were built. California Department of Water Resources

‘Opened old wounds’

Progress on Lake Oroville’s recreational facilities has been stymied in part by state law.

In 1961, the Legislature declared that the water agencies paying off the cost of building and operating Oroville couldn’t be billed for developing recreational facilities. The law has contributed to a longstanding funding shortfall at Oroville, according to a 2009 report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

“It is up to the Legislature, at its complete discretion, whether to provide funding,” the report said.

State officials already were trying to lower expectations before the dam was completed. A Reagan aide, speaking at a town hall meeting in Oroville in late 1967, said the recreational plan unveiled by Reagan’s predecessor, Gov. Pat Brown, was “somewhat exaggerated.”

Reagan’s administration scaled back DWR’s plan to build 10 recreational areas right away, reducing initial construction to three sites.

Even Reagan’s appearance in Oroville for the dedication in 1968 was a disappointment. A crowd of 3,500 turned up, far less than the 20,000 or so that had been expected. Still, the governor and DWR director William Gianelli struck a positive tone.

Oroville was destined “to become one of the major, if not the major, recreation attractions in the state of California,” Gianelli said.

Yet two months later, the only recreational facilities were a few picnic tables and a few campsites. The head of the Butte County Development Commission fumed at a Chamber of Commerce event that “nothing seems to be going on in Sacramento regarding this,” according to a Chico Enterprise-Record story from July 1968.

A quarter-century later, recreational development had lagged to the point that the feds stepped in.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which licenses the dam, ordered DWR in 1994 to build “additional campsites, picnic areas, and boating and fishing facilities.” FERC had received thousands of letters from area residents demanding better facilities.

See, the DWR official, acknowledged in an interview that there was a “disconnect” between what was promised and what got built. The agency’s 1960s blueprints represented “a conceptual plan,” he said. “It wasn’t a bullet-list set of requirements.”

The 1994 order, by contrast, set out a more definitive set of priorities. In the years that followed, See said the state spent about $30 million on amenities such as expanded boat ramps, an equestrian campground and even a floating campground that lets visitors camp in tents on the water. “That’s unique to Lake Oroville,” said See, who is chief of DWR’s federal license coordination branch.

A decade later, the state made an even bigger commitment. As part of its effort to get the dam relicensed, the state signed a 2006 settlement with the city of Oroville and nearly 50 other parties. The agreement promises spending $1 billion on wildlife habitat and enhanced recreational facilities. The recreation component called for $438 million in new spending over 50 years, including additional RV campsites, more boat docks and picnic spots, and expanded parking.

Yet more than a decade later, the vast majority of the funds hasn’t been spent. DWR can’t act until FERC approves the dam’s new license, See said. FERC finally finished the paperwork last year but can’t do anything because the five-person commission has only two members, one shy of a quorum.

Earlier this month, DWR was able to release $3 million for facilities improvements from its “supplemental benefits fund,” a pot of money that doesn’t need FERC approval. See said the funds were a recognition that “the community could really use (the money) right now.”

Critics call the $3 million a public-relations move following the spillway fiasco. See said DWR sincerely wants to improve recreation in Oroville.

“We’re looking forward to proving that we can get that done,” See said.

Community leaders remain skeptical. The city of Oroville is considering backing out of the 2006 settlement; Butte County never signed it in the first place. The raw feelings from the February evacuation leave many in the community wary of taking DWR at its word about anything, said Oroville Mayor Linda Dahlmeier.

“It’s opened old wounds,” she said.

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow

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