County plays its dam hand

In the high-stakes poker game between Butte County and the state of California over the relicensing of Oroville Dam, it was the county’s turn to lay down its hand at a public hearing last week (Nov. 8).

For four years, the county has been negotiating with the state Department of Water Resources to obtain what it believes is a fair settlement for what it costs to host the dam, which provides water and power worth billions of dollars to California residents elsewhere.

Unlike the city of Oroville, which accepted a financial offer from DWR and signed an agreement, the county has held out for more money and other benefits, saying the amounts offered so far don’t come close to matching the county’s costs.

The impetus for the negotiations is the 50-year relicensing of the dam’s power complex by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The DWR’s current license expires in 2007, though FERC can grant short extensions.

FERC staffers hosted the hearing at the historic State Theater, in downtown Oroville, to take comment on the agency’s draft environmental-impact statement on the dam facilities.

One county official after another—more than 30 altogether—paraded to the podium to document and complain about the adverse financial impacts of the dam and alleged deficiencies in the draft EIS, particularly in what they said was its failure to address the socioeconomic impacts of the facilities.

Curt Josiassen, chairman of the Butte County Board of Supervisors, noted FERC has looked at socioeconomic issues in relation to recent power licenses issued elsewhere, and he asked that the county be given “real” recognition for the dam’s negative economic impacts as well as some relief.

Supervisor Jane Dolan said the draft EIS “fails to address the impact on citizens and the cost burdens on public safety, roads and the criminal-justice system.” She added it also does not consider the negative impact the project had on the Feather River.

Dolan, who represents Chico but was born and raised in Oroville, said she had seen a number of landmarks such as the Big Bend Powerhouse, where her grandfather worked, destroyed by the dam.

She also recalled Oroville’s glory days when the historic Oroville Inn and the now-demolished Prospector’s Village once hosted wealthy visitors from the Bay Area.

“Too many buildings remain vacant in this community,” she said. “We need to have back what we had before.”

Paul McIntosh, the county’s chief administrator, said the draft EIS did not address property-tax losses to the county totaling in the millions, nor did it look at the $5 million annual cost to the county for providing services.

The dam, he said, provides benefits to the state worth as much as $100 billion over the 50-year life of the license while making things harder for one of California’s poorest counties.

Welfare and tax officials blamed the dam for bringing in an “explosion” of low-income people—workers who were out of jobs when construction ended. And Sheriff Perry Reniff said the dam brings added responsibilities to his staff, but the costs are not covered.

District Attorney Mike Ramsey said his office is prosecuting more and more rapes, burglaries, assaults and even homicides near the lake or in town as metropolitan visitors bring crime with them. It also prosecutes theft of Maidu Indian artifacts, DUIs, vandalism and more, with no reimbursement from the state.

Similar talk came from public-works, probation, communications and emergency-operations officials in the county, who described the impacts on roads, parole officers and potential disasters in Butte County because of the dam.

FERC’s Washington, D.C., office will continue to take comments on the draft EIS until Nov. 28. It will respond to the comments in its final EIS, which McIntosh later said he expects to be released sometime in late spring or early summer.

That EIS will include the conditions FERC requires the DWR to meet as provisions of relicensing, he explained in a phone interview. “If those conditions are not totally acceptable to the county, we could ask for a rehearing,” McIntosh added. “If that happens, our attorneys tell us FERC will really start to listen.”

The county hopes DWR will “come to its senses,” he continued, “and realize it can’t continue to pillage Butte County.”