Oroville coalition demands respect from DWR

Her voice trembling with age and emotion, Marilyn Wyman, 82, pointed out her old friends in the home movies flickering on the screen in the Board of Supervisors’ meeting room.

The movies, all shot in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, documented a mighty Feather River teeming with water skiers and swimmers, teenagers clowning around on the back of boats and a parade on the riverbanks. Back then the river, which runs right by downtown, had a greater flow and warmer temperatures and was the center of commerce and recreation.

But those days, Wyman lamented, are as dead as many of her friends in her home movies, casualties of the state’s faulty decision to dam the river, creating Lake Oroville, and sell much of the water and hydroelectric power it generates to a thirsty and power-hungry Southern California.

In return for losing the river’s natural charm and appeal to small-town Oroville, the state promised to turn Oroville into a virtual water wonderland, complete with fancy hotels, extensive campgrounds and a new, lucrative tourism-based economy—all surrounding Lake Oroville.

That was almost 50 years ago, and Lake Oroville now looks more like a large mud puddle than the majestic blue lake it was supposed to be by now. The surrounding city, say many locals, has suffered similarly—and the blame for the area’s condition can be placed squarely on the backs of a neglectful Department of Water Resources.

“We want the people of Butte County to be able to enjoy again a resource that has been taken away,” said Butte County Counsel Bruce Alpert, who sits on the Butte County Relicensing Team. “This lake has been detrimental, and only detrimental, to this community, and the DWR needs to recognize that.”

The DWR, which operates the lake’s dam—and by extension, the lake itself—is in the long process of renewing its 50-year license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to operate the dam’s hydroelectric power plant. A slew of county residents, fuming for years that the DWR has broken its promises to reimburse Oroville for the loss of the Feather River by turning Lake Oroville into a tourist destination, have taken the opportunity to demand a long list of local controls over the lake. They’re taking their case to the FERC and demanding that their concerns be addressed in the relicensing settlement.

Wyman’s recollections—accompanied by her home movies—were part of a long presentation to the Board of Supervisors from the Butte County Relicensing Team on Tuesday, Aug. 13. The group is made up of representatives from several county agencies, local Native American tribes, water interests and economic consultants from as far away as Washington, D.C.

What they want is for the DWR to acknowledge a “serious history of neglect,” said Alpert, but they haven’t gotten it. In a list provided to the Board of Supervisors, the committee also demands the return of Native American remains and artifacts disturbed in the construction of the lake, that the DWR keep more water in the lake and that it follow through on promises to build and maintain the recreation facilities on the lake, help fund economic development in Oroville and provide a new Lake Oroville Oversight Committee to ensure that the state follows through on its promises to Oroville.

Tuesday’s meeting was heavy with hostility from locals about the state’s “willful neglect” of the lake and recollections from Oroville residents who remembered as children spending more time on the Feather River than anywhere else. Now, grumbled Oroville Supervisor Bob Beeler, the river is “nothing more than a trickle” and the lake level is too low for recreation (the water is so low that the city will probably have to cancel its annual Bass Fishing Tournament next month, as the boat ramps are all landlocked, he said).

“This project has had a very profound effect on this community,” Beeler said. “… Not a good one.”

DWR project manager Rick Ramirez, who attended Tuesday’s meeting, denied that the state agency has neglected Lake Oroville. But other than to offer to have more joint meetings on the subject (and to throw around such bureaucratic terms as “ensure the ability to express their recreational interests"), Ramirez couldn’t offer the county assurances that anything would change with the relicensing.

“There are many components of this project other than the local interests,” Ramirez said.

He claimed that there’s no history of official complaints about the DWR’s management of the dam, but when Alpert pointed out that the agency was cited in 1994 by the FERC with failing to keep the water warm enough for fisheries, Ramirez acknowledged the complaint.

Beeler, an Oroville native, pointed to a long list of promises the state made to the county in 1966 with the formation of the lake and asked Ramirez if his department would fund a study to determine if any of them had been met. Clearly uncomfortable, Ramirez said he “would have to check with management about that.”

Beeler shook his head in response. "We’ve all heard that before," he said. "That’s the problem."