The state’s failure to develop Lake Oroville and nurture an economy based on tourism dollars takes its toll, but there may be hope
They gathered on the newly paved roads that cut through the grassy, golden oak-studded slopes near the receding shores of Lake Oroville. The day held a hint, like a light whisper through the trees, that suggested a potentially brighter future for the long-suffering town of Oroville.
On June 28, state officials joined local folks in a press conference and photo-op ribbon-cutting exercise dedicating the newest recreational addition—51 campsites—to the huge Oroville reservoir, whose existence once held the promise of a lucrative tourism-based economy for a region that instead has suffered in the 30 years since the state of California erected the tallest earthen dam in world.
While cameras clicked and the ribbon was cut, Alfred E. Clark, a 62-year-old Konkau Indian whose tribe long lived north of the Feather River, held a bald eagle feather aloft in his right hand and a peace pipe in the left.
“I was blessing the area,” Clark explained later. “I was glad to see the Native Americans and white people coming together on this day.”
When asked why the need for a blessing, Clark, who also goes by Chief Running Horse, replied, “If I knew that dam was going to cause so much trouble for Native Americans. … We had swimming holes along the river where we used to meet. My people traveled along that river, and then it was gone. So I came to bless the campground.”
First proposed in 1951, the Oroville reservoir and dam was the keystone of an ambitious state water project that would capture the abundant supply of water available in the north and send it via aqueduct to a thirsty and growing Southern California. It would also afford Oroville and the lower Feather River basin some measure of flood control.
Building the dam, however, meant that the Feather River, the wild, majestic waterway that flowed right past downtown Oroville and offered nearly unlimited recreation to the locals, would be forever changed. The stream’s flow would greatly decrease, and its water temperature would drop to a frigid year-round level rendering it too cold for any water activities besides fishing.
Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey, who was born and raised in Oroville, remembers that in the 1950s and early 1960s his town had the feel and look of the fictional Mayberry, N.C., where TV Sheriff Andy Taylor regularly took his son Opie down to their favorite fishing hole.
“I remember learning to water ski there on the Feather River right in downtown Oroville,” Ramsey recalled. “We used to have regattas where they’d have these boat parades. The river was much more an important part of the community. As a kid I remember practically living on the river.
“And I remember we had a black Lab that loved the water,” he continued. “There was a rope that someone had tied below the [Lower Thermalito Bridge] that you could grab and swing about 60 feet out. My dog loved it. He would run, grab the knot at the end of the rope in his teeth and then swing out over the river and drop. He’d do that until his teeth were bleeding and we’d have to stop.”
In return for giving up the myriad opportunities the river afforded the locals—swimming, fishing, boating, playing and water skiing in an idyllic small-town setting—the state, under prodding from the federal government, promised to turn Lake Oroville into a water wonderland, with fancy lakeshore hotels, numerous boat launches and thousands of campsites to accommodate the millions of tourists from San Francisco and beyond who would bring their dollars to Oroville to experience, in the words of former Gov. Ronald Reagan, “one of the greatest recreational and fishing lakes in California.”
As it turned out, however, the city lost much of the recreational use of a splendid river and got little in return.
A grand vision
The groundbreaking ceremony held on June 1, 1957, four years before actual construction of the dam was to begin, was prophetic of things to come. Visitors, mostly from Southern California, where most of the reservoir’s water would eventually flow, had arrived the previous day, according to the Oroville Mercury Register. This phase of the project involved the relocation of the railroad and Highway 40, which would be renamed Highway 70.
A 12-car train took the guests up the Feather River Canyon to where the dam was to sit. There Gov. Goodwin Knight gave a short speech hailing the historic importance of what was to transpire on that very ground.
Then, at noon, following a public barbeque at Hewitt Park, the governor pressed a button and yelled, “Let the dirt fly.” At that point there was to be a blast on a hillside that would be visible to those in the downtown picnic area.
“The governor had to repeat his exclamation three times before the dirt actually flew,” read the story in the Mercury Register, “and not much even then. But it was a start.”
The dam actually can be traced back to 1951, when it was first proposed by state engineer A.D. Edmonston. That same year the state Legislature authorized construction of the “Feather River and Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Diversion Projects,” which became the State Water Project.
In 1962 construction of the dam began. At $121 million it was the largest non-defense contract ever awarded in the United States. In 1966 workers began digging the California Aqueduct, which would carry the water from Oroville Reservoir, delivered to the aqueduct by way of the Feather and Sacramento rivers, to points south.
Three years later, work started on the dam’s powerhouse, which when finished would produce 900,000 kilowatts of electricity, enough to serve a million people. Most of the power, however, would go to running the pumps to convey the water through the aqueduct and up and over the 3,500-foot Grapevine grade in the Tehachapi Mountains before reaching Lake Perris in Riverside County.
“They built the dam, and the state promised us the world,” said Ramsey. “I was reading newspapers at that time, and I remember thinking that this was going to be the recreational wonderland of the Northstate.”
He graduated from high school in 1966, a year before the dam was completed. Over the next year, the Feather River flowed in to fill the reservoir and cover the waterholes and beaches on the upper river.
On May 4, 1968, the project was declared finished. The dam was 800 feet tall; the reservoir, which held 3.5 million acre-feet of water, was the largest in the state and formed its second-biggest lake. One day later, at its dedication, Gov. Reagan declared the reservoir to be “one of the greatest recreation and fishing lakes in California.”
He went on to boldly paint a grand vision of what was to come. “I see rising on the shores luxury hotels, places where people can enjoy themselves and where one of the greatest recreation areas in the nation will one day come into being.”
Ramsey recalled those days.
“I remember coming back up from Berkeley and watching the dedication ceremonies and the fireworks, and it was big, big deal. We thought, ‘This is it.’
“Oroville had been enjoying boom times based on the construction of the dam. A huge amount of people had come in to work on the dam, and that went on from ‘61 to ‘67.”
Now the tourism boom was about to begin, locals concluded.
Ramsey came back to Oroville in 1971, having graduated from Berkeley.
“At that point it was all still kind of in the building stage,” he said. “The town was still getting used to having this huge dam and reservoir.
“I remember when they cut a 300-foot swath all around that 167-mile shoreline, just cleared it off. And you’re going, ‘It know it looks a little ugly,’ but you’re also going, ‘OK, that’s the purpose of it, and it’s going to take a few years for the dam to fill up.’
A company called Funtime, Fulltime came to town, secured the initial contract and created the Bidwell Marina.
“It was like, ‘OK, here is the contractor, and stuff is going to really start happening. But of course, around that time the people who came to build the dam started moving out, following other projects,” Ramsey said.
Boom to bust
At that point, Ramsey said, many downtown businesses began closing. The boom had lasted about 10 years, and now locals were starting to see the beginnings of the bust.
“Even still,” he said, “people thought, ‘OK, everyone hang on, the recreational wonderland is on its way.’ The Chamber of Commerce thought, ‘Maybe we just need to advertise some more. But then, wait a minute, you know, we thought we were supposed to get this, this, this and this. Where is it?'”
But the state started saying it wouldn’t build facilities until it knew it could lure enough people to the lake to justify the expense. The city countered that the people wouldn’t flock until the facilities were in place.
The closest thing the area has had to a boom, Ramsey says, was a brief run in the early 1980s, when pot growers and methamphetamine manufacturers helped bring money into the region. That boom went bust in 1987, when the county re-established an inter-agency narcotics task force it had disbanded about 10 years earlier.
As if that weren’t enough, there is even some evidence that the building of the dam was responsible, at least indirectly, for what has been called the final nail in the coffin for downtown Oroville. In 1975 the town, which serves as the county seat, was rattled by an earthquake. Turned out there is a fault line near where the reservoir now sits. Speculation suggests that the water and weight of the 3.5-million-acre reservoir lubricated and then triggered a shift in the fault, leading to a quake that so damaged the foundation of the county courthouse that it had to be demolished.
A new courthouse had already been built a few miles north of town on Highway 70 when the quake struck. But five years after the earthquake, all the county administration offices also moved out of downtown, where many county employees had spent their lunch hours eating and shopping, into a new building that was constructed next to the new courthouse.
The downtown is pleasant today but hardly thriving. There are a number of vacant buildings; the county Family Support Division occupies the once popular and busy department store called City of Paris, and antique and collectible shops outnumber any other kind of business.
On Montgomery Street, next to the Hairloom salon and around the corner from the old City of Paris, a building that had sat empty for years and once served as a filming location for the 1970s TV series BJ and the Bear was gutted in a fire last month. Now the roof is gone; charred timbers have fallen to the blackened floor. The building, according to two women exiting the salon, had been shuttered for some time and was used for storage. Now a couple of charred trunks and old desks are the only things that can be identified in the fire’s twisted remains.
Meanwhile, local folks no longer can enjoy the river.
“One of the big things was the river used to be warm enough to swim in during the summer,” Ramsey said. “But now it’s too cold to swim in. The water is being taken out of the reservoir at 40 feet down. Part of that is for the fish hatchery to keep that water cool.”
The hatchery was built in 1967 because the dam effectively stopped the migration of salmon and steelhead. The hatchery would help make up for that loss.
“During the summer, when it was just a wild river and a free river, it was coming down from the Middle Fork and the North Fork and coming across those white rocks through Bidwell Bar [which now lies about 700 feet below the lake’s surface]. So when it came down it was cool, it was refreshing, but it wasn’t frigid the way it is now.
“Now it’s basically the same temperature year round—colder than a well digger’s ass. So you don’t take your family there to go swimming; there are a few kids that go swimming.”
Reason for hope?
The town continues to limp along, having never fully recovered from the bust that followed the dam construction boom of the ‘60s. The opportunities envisioned by a 1966 state document called Bulletin 117-6—a recreational plan for Oroville Reservoir, Thermalito Forebay and Thermalito Afterbay—have been only partially realized. Locals say that is why the economy slumps: No one visits for lack of facilities. State officials, however, counter that there are no facilities because no one visits.
On this day, watching festivities unfolding near the Lime Saddle Marina, with a water surface level that was unseasonably and almost obscenely low, the dedication of the 51 new campsites seemed anticlimactic. The ambitious vision painted in Bulletin 117-6 more than 30 years ago called for a 295-site campground by this date on this site. And, while there was a boat ramp here, it was built by the county, not the state.
According to Bulletin 117-6, the State Water Code specifies that “the Department of Water Resources shall plan for recreational developments associated with state-construction water projects and shall acquire sufficient land to implement development of recreation facilities.” It says the DWR “shall design, construct, operate and maintain these facilities.”
The document recommended $9.5 million in “initial development,” featuring five beaches with parking spaces, 605 picnic units, 675 developed campsites, 44 primitive campsites and six boat-launching ramps with 24 launch lanes built over five years. By 1997, there were supposed to have been 1,654 campsites, 1,185 picnic sites and 61 boat-launch lanes. And in 2017 there were to be 2,948 campsites, 2,025 picnic sites and 107 boat-launch lanes.
In reality, the lake, with the Lime Saddle addition, currently provides only 351 campsites (of which 85 are primitive sites accessible only by boat), 266 picnic sites and 42 boat-launch lanes.
The $13 million that Gov. Edmund Brown set aside in the 1966-67 state budget to fund the recreational development of Lake Oroville was virtually gutted the next year by Brown’s successor, Ronald Reagan. And once the dam was completed, it seems, Lake Oroville—and the city, for that matter—was placed on the state bureaucracy’s back burner, then completely pushed off the stove top, landing wedged between the back of the stove and the kitchen wall, to stretch the metaphor as far as it will go.
But there is reason for hope, which must spring eternal in a boom-and-bust town like Oroville. DWR’s 50-year license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to operate the hydroelectric power plant expires in 2007. Now we are in the midst of the long and expensive process to renew that license. Part of that process calls for a re-examination of how DWR has delivered on its recreational plans for Lake Oroville.
Currently a series of meetings with “stakeholders"—anyone with an interest in the future of Lake Oroville—are being conducted monthly. This process holds the best hope for the future of the lake and by extension the city of Oroville.
Off the map
At the Lime Saddle 51-campsite dedication, officials from the state departments of Water Resources and Parks and Recreation have come to reassure the locals that there is indeed a future in Oroville based on the dam.
The lake, unfortunately, did not provide a splashy background for the event. In fact, you could barely see the diminished lake unless you walked around and found just the right vantage point through the trees.
That didn’t seem to dampen the enthusiasm, though. Participants stood in front of a mammoth recreational vehicle to cut the ribbon.
One of those present was Dick Dungle, an older fellow who at the last minute was introduced to the gathering by Oroville attorney Dan Blake, who has spent a good deal of his time railing against the way the state has treated Oroville in the wake of the dam construction.
“I’d like to mention Dick Dungle, who’s worked hard to get these campsites in here,” Blake told the press and dignitaries.
Dungle waved his hand and then started making his way to the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Along the way he was stopped and asked about his efforts.
“We were supposed to have 250 campsites put here years ago,” he said. “DWR offered 25 on the other side of the lake. We said, ‘No, we need 250.’ We got 51. We’re looking at expanding to up to 250, but that depends on how well these are used.”
Dungle’s theory is that Oroville just sort of fell off the map, at least in eyes of the state agencies.
“People just forgot about it,” he said. “There were other entities that people thought were more important than what was going on on the west branch of the Feather River.”
He then asked if he could help cut the ribbon.
Stephen L. Kashiwada, deputy director of the state Department of Water Resources, was also on hand for the big ceremony. As a state bureaucrat, he was in the thick of the ribbon-cutting brigade.
Kashiwada later explained that the 2007 hydroelectric relicensing could signal new attention for the otherwise overlooked facility. However, the 51-site addition came about due to a revision in the existing license, he said.
“Back in 1994 [the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission] handed a revision to the license we hold to operate the facility. It updated the listing of what facilities would be included for the project. There’s been a whole series of them,” Kashiwada said.
Those, he said, include the new campsites and expansion of Lime Saddle Marina as well as the addition of some floating campsites and “some restroom-type deals.”
Kashiwada also put forth the chicken-and-egg analogy.
“This is sort of a good step,” he said. “Now that we have more facilities here let’s monitor usage, and if we get increase usage we also have the ability to expand on it in the future.”
There were two other people on hand for this latest dedication. James Ragland is an investment broker and member of the Oroville Recreational Advisory Committee, made up of both government officials and private citizens and formed to help guide the future of Lake Oroville. Dan Peterson is chief of the DWR’s Environmental Assessment Branch.
Soon after the ribbon was cut, the two men were engaged in conversation over the future of the project. They conversed like a couple of old friends.
Ragland says that finding the reasons for the apparent delay in developing the recreation for the reservoir depends on whom you talk to.
“Clearly there’s been a lot of dropped balls and a lot of fumbles, if you will, over the years,” he said. “But the local citizens believe that there’s great potential for recreation, and we’re hoping that through the relicensing process we’ll realize them.”
Peterson, as is to be expected, is a bit more cautious. He said that when the dam was constructed, recreation facilities were built with money available at the time.
“The DWR and Parks and Recreation then created a master plan for what could be built,” he said. “In our view, not everything was built for two reasons. No. 1, there wasn’t enough money. No. 2, there wasn’t the recommendation or demand to build.”
The men agree that qualifying for a new license may force DWR to build more facilities—though their respective agencies may not see eye to eye.
“We’re reasonable people,” said Ragland. “But some of the local people are a lot more militant than I am because they feel the only way you can get anything done is to scream and yell. I don’t operate that way. I think you have to be reasonable.
“Dan and I can sit and talk and have a difference of opinion, but we don’t get mad at each other. We discuss it. I think that’s been part of the problem. There’s been kind of this distrust or animosity thing.”
He then gestured toward the just-dedicated campsites.
“This is a great accomplishment, just to get this done,” he said. “I’m real happy that it’s here.”
Whether Lake Oroville will receive more attention from the state remains to be seen. There is some reason for optimism with the passage last year of Proposition 12, the Safe Neighborhood, Parks, Clean Water, Clean Air and Coastal Protection Bond Act that raised $388,000,000. But even if Oroville receives money and attention, it’s hard to believe that more campsites, boat launches or even luxury hotels could right the region’s listless economy.
The fact is, nearly 50 years ago the state sold the good folks of Oroville a package of goods that, in return for ruining the town’s majestic river, it never fully delivered. And even if the goods had been delivered, they never would have lived up to their promise. Lake Oroville simply does not have the allure of, say, Lake Almanor, with its cool summertime temperatures, jewel-like setting and view of Lassen Peak. The reservoir is convenient for local recreationists, but a realist would have to say that it’s probably never going to draw many people from outside the area.
Whether state officials knew that from the beginning can only be conjectured. What is clear is that the good people of Oroville bought the package and have been paying for it ever since.