Blake’s take on the lake

DOWN BY THE RIVER <br>Oroville attorney Don Blake says there is plenty of blame to go around for the demise of the local economy.

Oroville attorney Don Blake says there is plenty of blame to go around for the demise of the local economy.

Photo by Tom Angel

Oroville attorney Don Blake and Mike Ramsey grew up together in Oroville, though Ramsey calls Blake a “flatlander,” because he didn’t come to town until the fourth grade.

“If you want conspiratorial theories about what happened here, talk to Don Blake,” Ramsey advised.

That Blake is interested in the recreational development, or rather lack of development, around Lake Oroville is evidenced by the newspaper he’s been printing for the last year, called the Opportunity Bulletin. The name stems from the 1966 Department of Water Resources document called Bulletin 117-6, which laid out the future of the project.

The state, Blake said, has come “nowhere even close to fulfilling its promise” to the people of Oroville.

“There was supposed to be a hotel and golf course at the Forebay,” Blake said. “Where you see dry grass along the Forebay and Afterbay was all supposed to be tree canopied by now with parks and recreation fields and activity centers. There was supposed to be a hotel up at Bidwell Canyon. The list goes on and on.”

One of the three areas around the reservoir that was actually developed, at least in part, is Loafer Creek. Blake says that is only because the state Parks Department and the DWR entered a partnership with Southern California Financial Corporation. The contractual agreement was structured so that SCFC would never have to meet its future promises of development.

“The lawyers had drafted the contract that said [the] key to any development beyond the initial stage, which is what we see today, was the occurrence of having a million visitor days at the spillway, Bidwell Canyon, the visitor center and Loafer Creek. Back then if you took the number of parking spots that were available, you would have had to fill each parking spot something like six and one-half times each day for every day of the year to get to a million. Physically impossible.”

That contract was executed in 1969, and all who were intimate with it knew that the promised future development was not going to happen, Blake says. The public did not know the details until Blake began publishing portions of it in his paper a few years back.

Blake also says that, back in the 1950s, when the state first applied to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for license to run the hydroelectric plant, there was no requirement that the licensee have a recreational element in place.

Federal law said you could not exclude the public from using the lands for recreational purposes, but there was nothing that required a recreational development plan until the mid 1960s, well after DWR had already received its license.

“FERC was expecting licensees to develop a recreation development plan, but because DWR already had its license, they couldn’t retroactively impose that condition,” Blake said. “DWR, for its own state law purposes, developed a recreation plan, which was Bulletin 117-6.”

In the 1970s, DWR was brought before FERC on a disciplinary violation because it had sold 600 acres of project land without asking for FERC’s permission.

“DWR sent Bulletin 117-6 to FERC as a mechanism for compliance with current federal law and to try to resolve the license violation proceedings,” Blake explained. “DWR was saying, ‘See, we didn’t need this 600 acres. We have this recreation development plan.’ That’s how 117-6 became a part of DWR’s license.”

In 1989 a FERC inspector out of San Francisco came to Oroville with a copy of 117-6 to see what DWR had done to implement the plan. Blake says she found nothing beyond the initial development that was completed in the early ‘70s. Another license violation proceeding was initiated by FERC against DWR for failure to implement the recreation development plan that had become part of its license.

By now locals were collecting signatures and writing to FERC with complaints about how the DWR was neglecting Lake Oroville. FERC, in response, told the DWR that it had to meet with locals and come up with a 25-project interim recreation development plan and created the Oroville Recreation Advisory Committee, a 13-member group with representatives from Butte County, the city of Oroville and the Oroville Chamber of Commerce as well as five local interest groups such as the Butte Sailing Club.

Building the dam cursed the town at two levels, Blake says. Prior to its construction, Oroville had an active, tourism-based segment of its economy.

“People would come in for the fishery aspects of the river, and that not only included salmon and steelhead, but also black bass and trout upstream—cold- and warm-water species. But the dam destroyed that. The salmon are managed at a hatchery, the river became too cold for the black bass, and the lake destroyed a great deal of trout habitat.

“The second level is the failure to replace the old economy with a new economy based on recreational development. Where are the hotels? Where are the vacation resorts? If you go back to the ‘50s, Oroville was a very vibrant downtown community. Did the construction boom of the dam and the cash that came in as a result of that change things? Yeah, It did.

“Is it all the failure of outsiders that our business community failed to flourish? No. We made our own mistakes along the way as well."