Dammed if you do…

Oroville Dam relicensing offers opportunities, frustration

WATERWORKS<br>A woman walks across Oroville Dam, the tallest earthen dam in the United States and a keystone of the state’s water distribution system. Water from the reservoir is used to create electricity, some of which is used to pump millions of acre-feet of water to farmers and municipal users downstream.

A woman walks across Oroville Dam, the tallest earthen dam in the United States and a keystone of the state’s water distribution system. Water from the reservoir is used to create electricity, some of which is used to pump millions of acre-feet of water to farmers and municipal users downstream.

Photo By Tom Angel

Not enough wet stuff:
Yosemite it ain’t. Although there are beautiful vistas and spectacular waterfalls and many camping and hiking opportunities, Lake Oroville is best suited for boaters. How much this will be taken into account when the state considers recreation proposals is unknown. Another problem is that the lake’s water level is constantly fluctuating. While most locals want the state to keep a certain amount of water in the lake all year, the DWR says it can’t control how much snow falls in the Sierra, which is where most of the water comes from, and it has a legal responsibility to provide a certain amount of water each year to downstream users.

Anyone who doubts that the federal relicensing of Oroville Dam is of major importance to Butte County residents has never been to a meeting of the Joint Powers Association (JPA). At its most recent gathering, spectators saw a board member reduced almost to tears before the meeting even began; a slew of proposals for new recreation projects ranging from pie in the sky to jargon-filled minutiae; and several angry outbursts from locals who felt ripped off by the state and overwhelmed by the whole process.

Relicensing the dam is a process that brings together hundreds of competing interests, agencies, residents, ideas and goals and then throws them into an obscure arena to fight it out in a torturously slow form of legislative combat. Whoever’s left standing in the end will get their projects or their water or whatever else they want. The losers will have to wait another 50 years for the license to come up for renewal again.

And it pits diverse members of a small community, Oroville and Butte County, against the might of the entire state of California. As a JPA member characterized negotiations, they’re like a contest between “King Kong and a little monkey.”

Nonetheless, the admittedly tedious process presents the greatest hope in decades for Oroville’s civic redemption.

For those blissfully ignorant of the issue, here’s a refresher course: The state built Oroville Dam in the 1960s—creating Lake Oroville—as part of a statewide effort to collect mountain water runoff and distribute it to developing cities and farming communities, mostly in Central and Southern California.

The cost to Oroville was the loss of the wild Feather River, which was the heart of the town’s tourism industry and recreational life. In return, the state promised to help build recreational facilities around the reservoir that might draw tourists to the area and help Oroville’s economy. But the state, under then-Governor Ronald Reagan, later pulled the plug on funding for many of those facilities, and nobody in Oroville ever forgave or forgot it.

Because the dam operates as a hydroelectric-power plant, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) licenses it. Its license must be renewed every 50 years, but before FERC can grant the new license in 2007, it needs to see proof that the entity operating the project (in this case, the state’s Department of Water Resources, or DWR) is fulfilling the needs of all the affected agencies and groups. This means that everybody from federal fish and wildlife scientists to the downstream farmers to Joe Sixpack in his powerboat must have their needs addressed, or FERC could theoretically yank the license. More likely, the commission will simply ask DWR to provide some measure of mitigation to those who scream the loudest that they are being left out.

While it is easy, depending on one’s perspective, to cast various entities—the state, the water contractors, the feds, the environmentalists, the NIMBYers, et al.—as villains, the issue is more complex than that. Oroville residents have a tendency to blame the state for not providing enough recreation, but they tend to ignore that the dam has saved them possibly millions in damages from flooding over the years, say DWR spokesmen. Many of the recreational opportunities the state has provided are still chronically underused, and some of the recent proposals for further development are pricey and might benefit only select residents.

“Unfortunately, I believe some people see this as a free-for-all,” said Rick Ramirez, DWR’s program manager for Oroville facilities relicensing. “It’s like, ‘The state’s in town; let’s see what we can get out of it.'”

As part of its relicensing process, Ramirez’s group has spent millions of dollars and thousands of employee hours developing a multitude of studies to determine which projects are feasible for the area. The department solicited ideas from the public, and, though it has not set a firm deadline, it hopes to get those proposals by April 7. The deadline for DWR to submit its analysis to FERC is Jan. 31, 2005, at which time it will submit a list of protection, mitigation and enhancement measures designed to lessen the dam’s impact on all those affected.

Enter the Joint Powers Association, a group of civic leaders from Oroville, Butte County, Paradise, Gridley and local parks and development agencies that is charged with creating a recreation plan for the entire area. Chairman Gordon Andoe, who represents the Oroville Redevelopment Agency and is also Oroville’s mayor, said the benefits of bringing free-spending fun-seekers to the Oroville waterfront are hard to overestimate. Yet it is also hard to overestimate the grueling, tiresome nature of the planning process.

“It’s a big project. If we get 50 percent of what’s on the table, it will be a great thing for this area,” Andoe said. At the same time, it is nearly impossible to calculate what projects will be undertaken by whom and with what money. “There’s a lot of confusion as to how it’ll play out. You don’t have a budget, you don’t know what you’re working with—sometimes you just have to grin and bear it and go on.”

Many of the residents who started attending JPA and Oroville Recreation Advisory Committee (ORAC) meetings have been ground down over the years and have stopped going. Meanwhile, the meetings have been faithfully attended by paid staffers of state agencies and water contractors, giving them a huge advantage in understanding and influencing the process.

Lately there has been, however, a sort of second wind of interest that has brought out some compelling ideas for waterfront development. Buoyed by funding available from state grants, the JPA is looking at ways to tie downtown Oroville to new attractions on the river below the dam. Presently, $3 million has been set aside to build Riverbend Park, along with another $3 million to develop cultural and historical trails. Those projects don’t hinge on relicensing but, said Andoe, they might dovetail with something the state needs to provide anyway as part of its relicensing commitments.

“We’re looking at everything from kite flying to bird watching, bike riding to horseback riding,” Andoe said. “In no way do I see the state funding everything people want, [but] for this to be done right, we need to develop a plan for the whole area.”

Recently, the Butte County Board of Supervisors pledged to do just that, and studies are now well under way for a new master recreation plan. The county also submitted a list of projects it hopes DWR will take on as part of its relicensing commitments. Among them is the creation of a new oversight committee that would have some mechanism for providing “a responsive and effective structure and process for addressing FERC-license-related disputes at the local level.” How that committee would enforce its will was not made clear, but its makeup would apparently be similar to that of the present JPA.

Bob Sharkey, who has lived in downtown Oroville for 24 years and has been active in relicensing from the start, said recent developments give him hope that at least some of the recreational opportunities that were promised to Oroville 50 years ago may actually be built. But he cautions that, without public involvement, the process could still be taken out of locals’ hands.

“The technical aspects of it are just mind-boggling, even for the state,” he said. “I’m trying to be optimistic about it. The opportunities are there; it’s just a matter of how long it will take.”

Sharkey admitted that attending every relicensing meeting could easily turn into a full-time job. Still, he said, opportunities for such dramatic civic improvements are few and far between. If residents of Butte County, and especially Oroville, want to see new places to hike, swim, boat, fish or make money off tourists, they need to get involved.

“There is a lot potential there for recreational enhancements," Sharkey said. "It’s a difficult process, [but] it’s important that there’s public input in the process and that it keeps going on through all the various arenas."