After the storm

Lime Saddle Marina goes unrepaired as state opens bidding for operations contract

SADDLE UP Gayle Thacker (inset), operator of Lime Saddle Marina, fashioned a makeshift area off the shore of Lake Oroville for houseboats to park after storms damaged much of the facility. With the marina’s concession up for renewal, the future of the facility hangs in the balance.

SADDLE UP Gayle Thacker (inset), operator of Lime Saddle Marina, fashioned a makeshift area off the shore of Lake Oroville for houseboats to park after storms damaged much of the facility. With the marina’s concession up for renewal, the future of the facility hangs in the balance.

Photo By Tom Angel

When wind gusts estimated at 100 miles an hour howled through the night across Lake Oroville last Dec. 16, they destroyed the floating Lime Saddle Marina, and they also blew a cloud of uncertainty over the future of the facility and its long-time operator, Gayle Thacker.

The marina, which was blown apart in places, won’t be rebuilt this year. That means full conveniences for a host of boating enthusiasts from far and near will be lost for the summer.

Only gasoline, water, and pump-out facilities for boat sewage holding tanks will become available by Memorial Day, the seasonal opening date for boating recreation. That’s if all goes well, says Thacker, who owns the facility with her husband, Ken, a real-estate agent.

During a normal season, Thacker would expect to gross $800,000 to $1 million, but she thinks she will be lucky to clear 20 percent of that amount this year. She has pieced together from the wreckage several dock sections to create cable-anchored buoy mooring well offshore for about 50 houseboats whose owners continue to pay fees and did not have trailers to take them out of the water. She felt she owed the effort to longtime customers.

Altogether, the storm wrecked 336 boat parking spaces that earned half the marina revenue. Thacker answers phone calls in a two-room hut in the lower parking lot, all that remains of the once large, well-stocked marine store.

“Maintenance expenses go on, so right now it is costing me money to be here, and I never know when I’m going to run into some kind of snag,” Thacker said, adding that, although insurance will cover only a small portion of her income loss, it will pay for between 50 to 75 percent of the $2 million needed to rebuild the marina.

For now, however, Thacker sits in limbo. Why? The state Department of Parks and Recreation decided late in January, after the storm, to open the Lime Saddle site for bid, meaning it wants to sign a new 20-year contract with her or some new concessionaire, says John Shelton, chief of the Office of Concessions and Reservations for parks and recreation. The bid form—actually, the bid is a sample contract containing criteria and expectation statements called a Request for Proposal (RFP)—should become public in April. Thacker and other prospective bidders will need to study the terms to see if they will be interested.

The figurative cloud of uncertainty blown in by the storm means the state has several options: It can choose one standout applicant from among a number of applicants; it can negotiate one-on-one if only one interested party applies; it can decide no applicant fills the bill and reopen the bidding; or nobody might apply, in which case bidding could be reopened, or the state might decide to abandon its concessionaire search.

The last option grows out of a remark reportedly made by one state official at a meeting in January about the future of the Lime Saddle site. According to an observer who attended the meeting, the remark was to the effect that one option would be to remove everything and close the facility.

Several important things have for some time been common knowledge to potentially interested parties like Thacker. They know the state will be looking at how much rent an applicant could pay for the privilege of running a concession for 20 years at the attractive Lime Saddle site, with its state-owned concrete launch ramp. Although Shelton said the RFP will specify a minimum rent figure, it may well be negotiable.

They also know the state will want the concessionaire to pay for rebuilding the marina but allow it to escheat (cede the marina) to the state when the contract expires. That way the state would have something of substantial value to offer prospective bidders on the next RFP go-around.

Thacker, by contrast, bought the marina from the previous concessionaire in 1981 and thus owned an intact but aging and depreciating facility still worth considerable money before the storm destroyed it.

Finally, state officials know they will be wagering their costs and return on investment estimates on a site that is piling up a history since 1990 of frequent low-water years, with last year being among the three lowest of all. Low water is bad news for any marina operator; it means higher maintenance costs, a shorter season, and fewer boaters because of underwater hazards and reduced water surface area. Another danger is that more of the lake’s canyon wall area is exposed and thus allows greater funneling of strong winds.

Indeed, boating enthusiasts familiar with the situation expressed ambivalence about the Department of Water Resources (DWR) extending the concrete launch ramp down another 27 feet to 702 feet last December. (When full, the lake at Oroville Dam stands at 900 feet above sea level, but last December it fell to 690 feet. The record low was 645 in 1977.) While the new paved extension will make launching later into the season possible, it could also signal that DWR anticipates future deep low levels as the norm.

However, Joyce Tokita, a DWR spokesperson, said the ramp extension was in response not to such expectations but to the wishes of recreation enthusiasts. She added that Southern California—often targeted as drawing too much Oroville Lake water—can draw only its contract allocation, pro-rated for yearly fluctuating lake volume. She said critics should be more aware of the diversions—required by law—from the lake to flush salt water when it threatens periodically to encroach too far into the Sacramento­San Joaquin Delta. “The water quality of the Delta is constantly being monitored,” Tokita said.

“No other lake in the region experiences water level volatility like Oroville,” said Paul Holman, supervising ranger at the lake. That volatility contributes greatly to marina operating expense, Thacker argues. She explained it’s “humongously” labor intensive to manipulate the webwork of underwater cables that position the floating marina (and the boat mooring buoys) as it’s moved out from the shore to respond to lower water or in to shore to respond to rising water. (Thacker lost no cable to the storm; instead of breaking, the steel cables tore lose from shore anchors.)

For example, the DWR phoned Thacker on March 13 to alert her to the expectation of heavy rainfall during the weekend of March 15-16 that could have raised the lake level 40 feet. Thacker said she had to drop everything to make storm preparations. The forecast proved optimistic; the lake rose about 20 feet, Thacker said, but the DWR isn’t alone in wishing for more rain and snow in what is shaping up as another dry year.

The RFP will be posted on the Internet, advertised in the Sacramento Bee and one or more Butte County newspapers for 10 days, and sent to recipients on a standing mailing list of some 200 people who have expressed interest in doing business with the state, Shelton said. Applicants will have 45 days to submit papers, meaning the concessionaire could be announced in June. After that it will take eight weeks to have new docks ordered and delivered plus another four months to install them. Shelton noted the possibility of either the state or the concessionaire putting in a dry dock and repair shops at a location near the marina yet to be selected.

Although Shelton said he is “expecting a lot of applicants,” he has no idea how many will materialize. For example, Thacker said she was the only one who applied when her contract ran out in 1989, and the state chose not to enter into a new agreement with her. She continued to operate the marina until the present time under the old contract but on a month-to-month basis.

Shelton said Thacker’s 1989 contract experience would in no way prejudice the state against awarding the contract to her this time around if she appeared to be the best applicant. “Our challenge is to make the situation as attractive as possible so someone can see an opportunity to come in and make a living,” Shelton said. He conceded that lowering the rent could be a very attractive variable.

Thacker, who is in her 60s, said she will inspect the RFP and decide what to do. Why not just take the insurance claim money and walk away? "There are a number of alternatives I’m looking at, and that is certainly one of them," she said. "Also, you always have to look at tax ramifications."