Damage control

County honchos disclosed at last Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting that they sent a semi-secret delegation to Washington, D.C., last week to meet with congressional staffers and regulators with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in hopes of gaining a better position in negotiations over the federal relicensing of Oroville Dam.

The delegation, consisting of Supervisor Curt Josiassen, CAO Paul McIntosh and county lawyers Bruce Alpert and Roger Masuda, was “productive, informative and well-received,” Josiassen said. The visit, organized by county-retained D.C. lawyer Carol Smoots, was kept under wraps so as not to tip off the state Department of Water Resources (DWR), which the county claims is being less than generous with its offers to mitigate its activities at Lake Oroville.

“There’s no question as to the benefits [Lake Oroville] provides to Southern California and the rest of the state,” Alpert said. “But where are the benefits locally? They don’t want to deal with our issues.”

Alpert, who has led the county’s relicensing effort in the wake of former Water Commissioner Michael Pierce’s death from cancer last summer, has been highly critical of DWR, accusing the department of ignoring the economic impacts the Oroville Dam project has on the county while offering sweet deals to state water contractors. Lake Oroville is the keystone of the State Water Project, which provides an estimated 4 billion acre-feet of water per year to users downstream of Butte County. DWR has maintained the lake and its power-producing dam under a FERC license since 1957.

Since the dam was built, many in Butte County, and especially in Oroville, have claimed that DWR has broken promises to provide recreation facilities, and thus economic opportunities, to the region. Alpert repeated those claims Tuesday, saying that low water levels, inadequate boat ramps, high user fees and lack of proper maintenance have kept recreational usage of the lake artificially low.

With the FERC license up for renewal, the county and others have sought to use the relicensing process to get compensation for those grievances. But a split has developed among those negotiating with DWR over how much the department should have to dole out. Members of a citizens’ group from Oroville have recently begun blasting the county for taking what they perceive to be too hard of a stance, worrying that the powerful DWR could simply walk away from negotiations without offering any substantive concessions.

That opinion was voiced in a recent CN&R guest comment written by Oroville City Councilman Bob Sharkey, who warned of a potential “for the county to walk away from $440 million in recreation benefits because its leaders think the deep pockets of the state can pay out more.”

County leaders have said the $440 million Sharkey was referring to is mostly either money that DWR would have already spent on dam facilities or money contingent on increased recreation, which DWR has partial control over. When called for comment Tuesday, Sharkey revealed that he was speaking on his mobile phone from Washington, D.C., having traveled there with a delegation of his own, hoping to woo FERC into supporting Oroville’s position. He declined comment but said he would have more to disclose upon his delegation’s return.

Adding another wild card to the game, the CN&R learned Monday that maverick developer and environmental-mitigation banker Dan Korhdt has retained his own FERC-knowledgeable attorney to represent “property owners and the people that I would call stakeholders,” including his own company, Loafer Creek LLC, he said. In a telephone interview, Korhdt said he wasn’t choosing sides in the debate but decided to get involved because he has been frustrated by a lack of public information about negotiations.

“We’re trying to let the public know what our growth pattern’s going to be, make sure we reserve the natural resources for that growth, and if we don’t then we just sold our economic future right down the river,” he said. “Don’t got no water, don’t got no power, you sure as hell ain’t got no economic growth.”

A negotiating session that had been scheduled for Thursday was cancelled by DWR.