Napa County is near to a historic Vallejo water empire of small reservoirs that just might play a role in the county’s water and recreation future.
Neighboring Solano County is in the preliminary phase of exploring whether to lease and manage Vallejo’s Lake Frey, Lake Madigan and Lake Curry reservoirs in the hills along the Napa-Solano boundary. Whether Napa County might have a supporting role remains to be seen.
Perhaps Napa County could secure additional water supplies to be prepared for the next drought. Perhaps Lake Curry in the remote mountains of the east county could open up for recreation.
“From my view, I think Napa could be a good partner and I think they could benefit from this,” Solano County Supervisor Jim Spering said.
Napa County Board of Supervisors Chairman Alfredo Pedroza wants to keep that possibility open, given how valuable water is in California.
“I think it’s an opportunity we have to explore,” Pedroza said. “I think a partnership could be potentially forged with Solano.”
But the situation will remain murky for the next few months. Solano County is working on a study to see if leasing the Vallejo Lakes System makes any sense financially and practically. If it decides in the affirmative, it would have to strike a deal with Vallejo.
“We’ve got a long ways to go,” Spering said. “We’re in the exploration phase right now.”
Vallejo in the late 1800s created Lake Frey and in 1908 created nearby Lake Madigan in the hills just east of Napa County. In the mid-1920, it created Lake Curry in eastern Napa County. Pipes brought the water to Vallejo.
This was long before the creation of massive Lake Berryessa reservoir in Napa County and the state system of reservoirs, canals and pipes that move water all over California. Having a local reservoir system was a coup for Vallejo a century ago and helped fuel the growth of Mare Island Naval Shipyard.
Today, the system pipes are old and need repairs. The main users are about 850 customers—mostly in rural Solano County, but some in rural Napa County – that are being hit with expensive water bills. Vallejo has considered selling its reservoirs.
Vallejo and Solano County in November entered into an agreement that gives the county a year to evaluate leasing the Lakes Water System.
“It’s been recognized over the last 10-plus years that the operation of that system is expensive for the city of Vallejo,” Vallejo Public Works Director David Kleinschmidt told the Vallejo City Council.
Perhaps the county could expand the customer base and lower operating costs, he said. That could lower the cost to customers.
Solano County’s motivation is providing water for residents who are in a bind. But it might consider opening Lake Frey, Lake Madigan and Lake Curry for public use, something Vallejo hasn’t allowed for decades.
“It could be,” Spering said. “It’s not something we’re precluding and it’s not something we’re including at this point.”
Since Lake Curry is in Napa County, the logical group to oversee public access there would be the Napa County Regional Park and Open Space District.
Lake Curry is hardly Napa County’s biggest reservoir, given it holds less than 1 percent of the water of Lake Berryessa. But Lake Berryessa is huge, so Lake Curry isn’t necessarily a pond – it is more than a mile across at its widest points.
“It’s very beautiful,” Open Space District General Manager John Woodbury said. “Around the lake, it’s oak woodlands and grassland. Most of the watershed is either oak woodland or chaparral. There’s a caretaker’s residence there. The lake is a great amenity.”
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Lake Curry is about a 35-minute drive from the city of Napa, Woodbury said. The general public cannot reach the lake because the road in Gordon Valley leading to it is gated.
Vallejo used Lake Curry as a water supply until 1992. It tried to resume use about eight years later, but laws protecting rare steelhead trout in Suisun Creek downstream from the reservoir’s dam proved a challenge. By 2009, Vallejo had Lake Curry on the market.
The Open Space District doesn’t necessarily want to buy a lake and take on all the responsibilities of caring for a dam, beyond the fact it doesn’t have the money for such a large purchase.
On the other hand, the district manages Bothe-Napa Valley State Park for California. It oversees camping and other activities, even as the state continues to own the land. That could prove a template for a Lake Curry leased by Solano County.
“At this point, all we’re able to do is offer our institutional structure to operate something, similar to what we’ve done at the state park,” Woodbury said.
Maybe it will be like early 1926 again, shortly after Vallejo built the dam to form Lake Curry. The March 3, 1926, The Napa Journal reported that a large number of Vallejo motorists on a Sunday traveled to see the reservoir and were impressed by its size.
“From now on, it is expected that many residents will pay weekend visits to the lake as it makes an ideal trip, being but 28 miles from town,” the paper reported.
Vallejo tried to give people even more reason to visit the new lake, back in those days when it allowed visitors. It applied to the state to stock the reservoir with fish.
Perhaps Vallejo wanted to curry some favor in early 1926 when it named the reservoir after Charles F. Curry. Curry represented the area in Congress.
“The primary honor for the success of this project is due to the progressive people of Vallejo, who taxed themselves so heavily to secure an adequate water supply for the city of Vallejo and the Mare Island Navy Yard,” Curry wrote to the city.
Lake Curry was the latest jewel in Vallejo’s local reservoir crown. It joined Lake Madigan, named after one-time Vallejo Mayor J.J. Madigan, and Lake Frey, named after John Frey, considered the father of Vallejo’s municipal water system.
Lake Madigan and Lake Frey are closer to downtown Napa than Lake Curry, being only about a six-mile drive east to Wild Horse Valley. As they are in Solano County, the job of operating them as a recreation area, should that happen, might go to a Solano County group.
But the Vallejo Lakes System is primarily about drinking water.
“Potentially, what Napa could get is a water allocation, something it could sell or use,” Spering said.
The local city most in need of more water supplies is American Canyon, which depends on the highly variable State Water Project. Public Works Director Jason Holley said Solano County has yet to contact him about possibly buying Vallejo Lakes System water.
“It’s hard to know,” Holley said. “The details would be important. We’re open to any particular situation. We’re always interested in keeping our ears to the ground as to what’s been out there.”
Before focusing on Sites Reservoir north of Sacramento, Holley’s department explored the possibility of purchasing Lake Curry. Officials determined that buying the Vallejo-owned lake would be more costly than investing in Sites Reservoir, which hasn’t been developed yet.
Steelhead trout in Suisun Creek below Lake Curry remain an issue.
Laurel Marcus of the California Land Stewardship Institute said there’s no pipe to carry Lake Curry water to a water treatment plant. A possibility is to release the water into Suisun Creek, then let it run downstream to the Putah South Canal that transports Lake Berryessa water.
Water from Lake Curry could be released in the winter for people and be released in the summer for fish, Marcus said. Her group is using a state grant to study how Lake Curry could be operated to improve water conditions for fish.
All of this is one more piece of the complicated Vallejo Lakes System puzzle. But the value of water in California has Solano County – and maybe Napa County in a supporting role – interested in trying to solve it.