1957: The year they flooded an agrarian paradise

Part One: Napa County got the headaches, Solano County the water
2012-08-19T00:01:00Z 2012-08-19T22:36:19Z 1957: The year they flooded an agrarian paradisePETER JENSEN Napa Valley Register
August 19, 2012 12:01 am  • 

Death came to the Berryessa Valley, a fertile paradise where families had farmed for a century, during the rains of the winter of 1957.

The residents, ranchers and farmers had left, the buildings were razed, the orchards cut down, the crops uprooted. Even the graves in the cemetery were exhumed and moved to higher ground.

By order of the United States government, almost everything of value was removed. All that remained that winter was the two-lane highway and the stone bridge — Napa County’s longest — over Putah Creek.

By then, the 300-foot-high Monticello Dam was complete at Devil’s Gate, where Putah Creek broke east through the Blue Ridge, carving a canyon — and a natural dam site — on its way to the Central Valley.

The creek had run through the valley for thousands of years, but now its waters were backing up. They seeped up the highway, over the flattened town of Monticello, over the scoured farmland.

On Feb. 26, 1957, crews poured the last bucket of concrete for Monticello Dam. Per tradition, they tossed in a few coins as well.

With the dam’s completion, Napa County, which today so prizes its world-renowned agriculture, lost one-eighth of its farmland, an area with annual agricultural production valued at $1 million in 1947.

What it gained was a reservoir, Lake Berryessa, whose benefits would flow primarily eastward. Lake Berryessa would become Solano County’s economic treasure, an exclusive source of reliable water for its farms and cities.

In 1948, the federal government had to choose between saving Berryessa Valley for farming or flooding it to benefit neighboring Solano. Napa County touted the valley’s 12,000 acres as some of the most fertile in California. But in the eyes of the dam builders, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Devil’s Gate was one of the best dam sites in the entire Central Valley.

The decision to flood Berryessa Valley reflected California’s insatiable need for water, its most precious resource. As the historian W.H. Hutchinson observed, irrigation produces more value every year in California agriculture than the value of all the gold mined in the Gold Rush.

Monticello Dam was designed to hold back 1.6 million acre-feet of water (1 acre-foot equals about 326,000 gallons), an enormous amount. In comparison, Napa, the county’s population center, uses less than 15,000 acre-feet per year, none of it from Lake Berryessa. Each year, the dam spills more than 200,000 acre-feet into Solano County, enough water to irrigate more than 80,000 acres of cropland and supply cities such as Vacaville, Vallejo, Suisun City and Fairfield, with enough left over for Anheuser-Busch to make Budweiser beer.

Solano County received a tremendous gift when Monticello Dam was built. Federal taxpayers covered the $47 million in construction costs, which paid for the dam, a diversion dam, and a 33-mile canal to deliver the water. Solano paid that back over 50 years at zero percent interest.

Lake Berryessa is the largest federal reservoir in California whose waters are available almost exclusively to users in one county, which sits just miles from the source, said Drew Lessard, a deputy area manager for the Bureau of Reclamation.

“It is a vital economic resource,” said David Okita, general manager of the Solano County Water Agency. “We don’t like to brag about this, but we’ve got it pretty good.”

It cost Napa County dearly. Not only did the county lose some of its best agricultural land, but it receives a pittance of the water. The communities and resorts at the lake get Berryessa water, but it amounts to a small fraction of what Solano receives.

In 2005, Napa County studied what Lake Berryessa had cost county taxpayers the previous fiscal year. With the lakeside resorts fully operational, producing tax revenue, the county still lost about $700,000, according to Helene Franchi, a county budget analyst. The lake was averaging between 1 million and 1.5 million annual visitors back then, according to Bureau of Reclamation statistics. Doing the same analysis in 2006, the county’s loss was calculated to be more than $800,000.

Franchi said the analysis looked at the costs of providing police, fire and emergency medical services to the lake, as well as the costs to the county jail for housing people arrested at Berryessa, among other expenses. The county found that 75 percent of the county’s costs were to pay for Napa County sheriff’s deputies and other law-enforcement expenses. The revenue didn’t come close to covering the expense, she said.

Because the resorts are on federal property, the federal government gives the county an average annual payment of $127,000 to pay for services that would be covered by the property tax revenue the county would otherwise collect, Franchi said.

The county’s costs have dropped in recent years because the flow of tourists has slackened due to scaled-back resort operations, but so have tax revenues, Franchi noted.

The lake is still a financial drain on county coffers. In the past two years, the county has lent $3 million to cover operational deficits and other costs for two troubled utility districts at the lake, one serving Berryessa Highlands, the other Berryessa Estates.

These loans will almost certainly be written off as county subsidies, with the prospect that yet more loans will have to be made, officials said.

Considering what the value of Berryessa Valley’s agricultural production was, and would be if it still existed, the size of the loss grows.

“We fought that thing as long as we could,” Napa County Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht recently said of Monticello Dam. “We’ve been paying for it ever since.”

Monday in Part Two: Berryessa old-timers grieve for a lost way of life

Copyright 2015 Napa Valley Register. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(15) Comments

  1. bentrod
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    bentrod - August 19, 2012 8:00 am
    Fascinating story. I love this kind of reporting and am looking forward to the rest of it. Thanks NVR!
  2. missmarvelous
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    missmarvelous - August 19, 2012 8:01 am
    This is why there is a big rift between Napa and Solano counties, and why there has been a political power grab between the two counties for years. Once the Navy left Mare Island in Vallejo, "it was on" for the political grab, Vallejo lost it's foot hold on the political scene once Senator Gibson and the Navy were no longer powerful in Vallejo. Lots of dirty political tricks on both sides of the "creek" for years. History shows going back 150 years that there exist receipts for "slave sales" in Napa Co, and the Jim Crow laws were enacted until the 1960's, some folks still feel like the Jim Crow laws exist. Then Napa's water was stolen in a big way, not only was it taken, Napans who refused to help fund the dam, can not even use a drop of the water, and have to rely on whatever sub par water is available, you know what we shay in Napa, drink the wine, not the water. Napa politicans have spent the last 20 years trying to pay back Solano Co, passing negative legislation
  3. napascouts
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    napascouts - August 19, 2012 9:18 am
    Great I have to decide if i want to read part 2 and use one of my 10 freebies of the month! Decisions, decisions...............
  4. tax_advisor
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    tax_advisor - August 19, 2012 9:57 am
    You can see the photos from Pirkle Jones and Dorothea Lange's 'Death of a Valley' here,

    Other photos are available here,
  5. reason-ator
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    reason-ator - August 19, 2012 10:15 am
    What an unfortunate occurance.

    Trust me, they're not freebies.
  6. fmmt47
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    fmmt47 - August 19, 2012 11:13 am
    I remember when this happened, a lot of the former farmers in the Monticello area moved to Napa, most boutgt homes on the west side because each home had an additional lot for what else, planting fruit trees and vegetables. I learned a lot from these folks, sad but true if the dam weren't built all of the farms would be wineries now with tasting rooms and event centers.
  7. BB61-Chief
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    BB61-Chief - August 19, 2012 1:11 pm
    "The Day 'THEY' Flooded...?" Just who IS "they?" Yes, I CAN read the article, but I should not HAVE TO. Please, you "journalists," when choosing a title for your articles, please STOP using "THEY" as a substitute, OK? It makes is sound corney. like a bad B movies. Nice photos thought, by the way.
  8. Crosscountrykid
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    Crosscountrykid - August 19, 2012 7:01 pm
    To the County BOS: any chance of working thru LAFCO to cede Lake Berryessa region to Solano County? Since they are reaping all the benefits of the lake, why not lot them have all the headaches too?
  9. ginnyhen
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    ginnyhen - August 19, 2012 7:11 pm
    Very well written...The loss of the Berryessa Valley was devastating to my family....
  10. Raven
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    Raven - August 19, 2012 7:29 pm
    seen the lange fotos and they ae great
  11. Raven
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    Raven - August 19, 2012 7:36 pm
    Napa's water was stolen understanding is that Napa county was offered the opportunity to participate and receive some of the water and opted out...
  12. Cricket1927
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    Cricket1927 - August 20, 2012 12:28 pm
    Great article! I have a friend whose family lost their ranch to the Dam. Jim Knowles used to say his family now had the deepest swimming pool in California.
  13. glenroy
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    glenroy - August 20, 2012 2:25 pm
    Actually Rav you’re close... the properties around the lake were promised unlimited ag water at no charge, then Solano sued the property owners to take that few were doing it, actually none that I know of…so to that effect it was stolen fair and square.

    It wasn't practical for the county to pipe water from Berryessa...though if they were smarter they could have exchanged water units…but then we would have shared the costs.

    The revenue from the users benefited Napa County far more than Solano or Yolo...but UCD and Co ruined that.
  14. glenroy
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    glenroy - August 20, 2012 2:28 pm
    The county doesn't have any the give away....the land around the lake is owned by the Federal Government.

    That lake was ruined much like Piners was ruined because a company paid to destroy other businesses...and of course kickbacks.
  15. Manorboy
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    Manorboy - August 22, 2012 1:21 pm
    Thank you for the first intelligent article published in the Register for a Very Long Time.
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