No more empty promises
County ponders how to get state to fulfill its Oroville Dam obligations
The last time the federal government licensed the operation of the Oroville Dam, locals were promised that the finished project would create a recreational wonderland that would attract tourists from all over the state. It never happened.
In allowing the creation of the huge dam and reservoir, Oroville lost the wild river that was key to its identity, and much of Butte County’s water ended up being shipped to points south.
Now that the dam’s power facility, run by the state’s Department of Water Resources, is up for relicensing through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, local water watchers are demanding that an oversight committee—hopefully one “with teeth” this time—be set up to avoid the missteps of the past.
At a recent presentation to the Butte County Board of Supervisors, county legal expert Bruce Alpert proposed just such a commission, along with a slew of other measures the county would like to include as conditions to the relicensing. These measures—known as protection, mitigation and enhancements (PM&Es) in planning jargon—address recreational opportunities, water temperature, fish and wildlife issues and flood and watershed protection across the county.
The measures, which can be viewed on the county’s Web site, still need to be “fleshed out,” Alpert said, and he and the board encouraged public participation in deciding which projects are desired most by the community.
But the issue for many residents is not what to ask the state for, but how to ensure it will keep its promises. The current committee that keeps an eye on the state’s progress at the dam was created in 1994 as the Oroville Recreation Advisory Committee (O.R.A.C.). That body, according to senior member Mike Kelley, lacks the muscle to enforce state promises.
“Right now they just run roughshod over us,” Kelley said, citing a long list of improvements to the area that were promised but never delivered. The complexities of the project, coupled with the agonizingly slow process of meetings and negotiations, serve to keep regular people out of the loop and allow the state and private water contractors to have their way. A committee with legislative powers could tip the balance, Kelley said.
As with everything involving water in California, the real issue is money. Kelley estimates that Lake Oroville provides 65 percent of the water used in California and pumps $3 billion in water sales directly to the general fund. Much of the water is sent to farms and population centers in the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California, areas that have much more political and economic clout with state legislators than does Butte County.
The current relicensing period may be the only chance in the next 50 years for the county to tap into the dam’s resources and put its development under some form of local control. The real unknown in the equation is the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the agency that has final say over whether the license is granted. Water bigwigs at the state don’t seem overly concerned that they will lose their license but may be willing to share more of the dam’s wealth if locals make a big enough noise to attract the Fed’s attention, Kelley said.
The next meeting of the Lake Oroville Joint Powers Association, which draws together leaders from counties and municipalities to hash out concerns with the state and its private water contractors, could be an early indicator of how much the community cares about the issue. That meeting is Thursday, Feb. 13, 6 p.m. at Oroville City Council Chambers, 1735 Montgomery St., Oroville.