Recreation in waiting

The time may finally be right for funding Oroville’s Riverside Park

UNFINISHED BUSINESS <br>Pete Dangermond, of the firm that designed the hoped-for improvements of West Park/ Riverbend Corridor Park off Highway 70 near Oroville, said a better boat ramp would draw many more tourists and locals.

Pete Dangermond, of the firm that designed the hoped-for improvements of West Park/ Riverbend Corridor Park off Highway 70 near Oroville, said a better boat ramp would draw many more tourists and locals.

photo by Tom Angel

Project partners: The West Park/Riverbend Corridor interim project’s partners include the Feather River Recreation and Park District and the Lake Oroville Joint Powers Authority, made up of the parks district, Butte County and the cities of Oroville, Gridley and Paradise. Also on board is the Oroville Chamber of Commerce.

As if on cue, a brown rabbit bounded across the dry, graded dirt of what may become, after more than a quarter-century of delays, the West Park/Riverbend Corridor Park in all its intended glory.

The project was begun in 1981 but never finished, another state-broken promise of bringing recreation to the Oroville area.

On Oct. 11, state water big-wigs, politicians, recreation experts and representatives from agencies as diverse as the state Department of Fish and Game and the Oroville Chamber of Commerce were among some 50 people gathered alongside the Feather River just west of Highway 70 for a tour of the park-that-could-be. Amid them mingled community members, all chiming in how much the area wants—and needs—this to happen.

With the assembled power players in place and the project looking more and more possible, Feather River Recreation and Parks District Superintendent Bob Sharkey was understandably excited.

“It’s the first time when all of the people who would be involved are here,” said Sharkey, who was confident they’d be impressed with the district’s plans.

He’s picturing an inviting, grassy park with a visitors’ center, boat-launching ramp, trails, picnic areas and tourists and locals by the dozens coming to enjoy the scenic river.

“We’ve been pumped up for this for a long time,” Sharkey said. “The last few years we’ve felt really close to finally doing what’s been planned for 30 years.”

Back in the mid-1970s, the state recognized the piece of land along the Feather River as a potential park project. Plans were drawn up and preliminary engineering was done. But dreams take dollars to come true, and the project languished, with improvements being made a little at a time, often by service clubs like Rotary and Kiwanis.

Park supporters were hoping state decision-makers would get a message from Thursday’s tour: “They feel very proud of this site. It’s a very usable site [that] deserves being finished,” said Pete Dangermond, head of the Sacramento-based environmental planning firm that has worked up the design of the West Park/Riverbend Corridor project.

Now, as the Oroville Dam comes up for relicensing by the Federal Energy Regulation Commission (FERC), the wheels are finally turning again.

Relicensing means that the state Department of Water Resources (DWR) must host public hearings that will consider, among other things, the area’s recreation needs. Then, the locals will sign off on a settlement agreement, and the state will pass along money to implement some of the community’s goals.

What’s being called the “interim project” would cost $3.6 million for construction, plus extra money for maintenance and management each year. In the funding balance summary, the money was divided tellingly into two columns: dollars already secured and money that’s hoped for but not guaranteed. Even with both columns, the project is still $2.1 million short.

The state Department of Water Resources is being asked to kick in $2 million, which it would gather through assessments of its members—mostly municipal water systems.

David Okita, general manager of the Solano County Water Agency, said all the water contractors are charged with the responsibility of finding out which of the many requests for projects it gets are worth the cost.

“We’re here to learn more about it,” he explained. “There are always projects that are looking for money from the state water program.”

Thomas Hannigan, who is the director of the entire Department of Water Resources, was on the tour and said one of the most important barometers as the agency and state water contractors get together to make the decision about the park will be whether the locals support it, and “what sort of benefits it provides to the community.”

Sharkey said that, while he hopes the DWR allocation and other money comes through, “We’re going to do the project no matter what.” He said if it were less than the $3.6 million, the work would have to be done in phases.

The project is assured $550,270, including $100,000 from the city of Oroville’s redevelopment agency, $100,000 from the Chamber of Commerce and $250,270 from the state Wildlife Conservation Board.

That figure also includes $100,000 the parks district is getting directly from voter-approved Proposition 12, the Safe Neighborhood, Parks, Clean Water, Clean Air and Coastal Protection Act. But the county has yet to determine if and how much the project should benefit from the $750,000 it is authorized to spend.

Fourth District Butte County Supervisor Curt Josiassen, in whose jurisdiction the park falls, was among those taking the tour. He, along with 1st District Supervisor Bob Beeler, who, like county staff, favors giving the Prop. 12 money to veterans’ halls, sits on a subcommittee that will decide where the county’s share will go.

“We’re talking about this [Riverbend project] and the veterans’ halls,” Josiassen said. “We’re trying to figure out how we can help everybody.

“This is an important project,” he added. “I think it could be a jewel. … This area is underdeveloped and I think a lot more could be done.”

Where the touring group walked, the rocky, barren trail was broken up by a cardio par course, a disc golf course—with shirtless 20-somethings enjoying a round—and the occasional dog-walker. As the group got closer to the freeway, Lonnie Steelman of the Oroville Chamber of Commerce pointed out the six or seven acres where the visitors’ center would go. There would be a temporary building at first, and later—again, if there’s money—a larger center that could even host meetings of nonprofit groups.

Longtime Oroville resident Anita Bell remembers growing up picnicking and playing on these very banks. “This area is like a home,” she said. “In the 1950s, we didn’t have a lot of places to go and a lot of things to do. But we did use this river.”

Bell said her uncle had an old raft boat, and “we used to come down and put it in and fish.”

She said that over the years young people’s interests changed, and while the area continues to be used and enjoyed, it’s reached the point where it needs to be developed to draw the crowds. “It really has never stopped. It’s just slowed down a bit,” Bell said.

Dangermond said that, situated as it is just off the freeway, the site lends itself to other recreation, like bike riding, visiting historical attractions in Oroville or checking out the dam.

“This is a very strategic interchange,” Dangermond said. “It will help to anchor the town to the river [and] honor the historic use of the community of the river.”

Plus, he said, the diverse uses would prove popular for both families and solo recreators: wildlife viewing, fishing—even children wading and folks using paddleboats. “It’s a friendly river,” Dangermond assessed.

Wade Hough, who represents the Butte Sailing Club to the Oroville Recreation Advisory Committee, saw the day’s events as a turning point for the project. “There are people here who can make decisions on a state level,” he said.

“The community has been talking about this for a long time,” he said. “We all share the same vision on what we want to do here. … There is no opposition to this.”

Hough said Chico has capitalized on the Sacramento River by adding enhancements, and the Oroville area deserves the same. He said it was state agencies that held up the project all these years, but now they’re interested in hearing what people here have to say.

“The locals are the ones that know what needs to be done here," Hough said.