DWR offer looks dead in the water

For years people in Butte County, and especially in Oroville, have complained that the state broke most of its promises to create a recreation wonderland when it built Oroville Dam in 1968 as the keystone of the State Water Project. Now, with its license to operate the dam up for review by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the state’s Department of Water Resources (DWR) seems to have come up with an interesting way to avoid breaking any future promises: It just won’t make any.

At Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, county lawyer and FERC relicensing point man Bruce Alpert expressed frustration and disappointment with the department’s first settlement offer, which he said does not address any of the county’s main concerns about operations at Lake Oroville.

“I may be being generous to say this offer merely upholds the status quo,” he said. “As a lawyer, I have to look at this as a lowball first offer. DWR wants to see this settled in October or November, [but] these issues are not going away.”

The offer, Alpert said, fails even to mention some of the county’s top concerns and plans for the area around the lake, including:

• The construction of new recreation spots in the “low-flow” section of the river beneath the dam.

• An independent oversight committee that would be able to enforce the terms of the FERC license.

• Recognition and mitigation of the socio-economic impact the project has had on the area.

• Funding for Fish and Game enforcement, as well as for extra police, fire and services around the lake.

• A measurable set of standards to show how much recreation is going on around the lake.

Alpert and the board stopped short of saying DWR was negotiating in bad faith, but some of the supervisors were clearly angered by the offer. Paradise Supervisor Kim Yamaguchi used the words “ridiculous,” “insincere” and “a shame” and asked, “Is this just a guise and a ruse?”

“In the real-estate business, we sometimes get what are called ‘frivolous offers,'” he said. “If you get a $100,000 offer on a $500,000 house, you reject it immediately. It’s a token effort.”

The offer does put a few improvements on the table, such as boat ramps and expansion or improvements in seven areas of the park. Those improvements generally mean putting in picnic benches, water spigots, outhouses, parking spaces and the like.

But Alpert noted that some of the improvements had already been promised in the past. While the department has already spent about $70 million on relicensing studies, lawyers and consultants, it is offering only about $30 million in improvements to the lake, money that would be spread out over a period of 30-50 years.

“These programs … are not new,” Alpert said. “Where’s the extra benefit? Where’s the bang for the community in all this?”

That the offer was released to the press and talked about in public is itself a small victory for the county, as DWR had proposed what amounted to a gag order for everyone participating in relicensing meetings. Those meetings, held in private, are attended by DWR and FERC officials, state water contractors, regional stakeholders and representatives from local Indian tribes.

As Chico Supervisor Jane Dolan noted, “It’s no wonder they wanted to keep it confidential.”

The next meeting is May 25. A spokesman for DWR was not available for comment before press time.