Napa County contains massive Lake Berryessa, the seventh-largest reservoir in California, and receives what in the water world amounts to a thimbleful from it.
Almost all of Lake Berryessa’s water goes to neighboring Solano County. Only a small portion goes to Napa County and none to Napa Valley cities or its world-famous wine country vineyards.
Amid a drought, it’s like being parched next to an oasis. This oasis is mostly off-limits because Napa County during the 1940s and 1950s didn't help fund — and in fact opposed — the creation of a federal reservoir that submerged a townsite and farmland.
Still, there’s this following goal in Napa County’s 2022 legislative platform — obtain additional water from Lake Berryessa.
“It’s a bit of a long shot,” acknowledged Richard Thomasser of the Napa County Flood Control and Water Conservation District.
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He stressed the idea isn’t to infringe on Solano County’s water allocations from the reservoir. But maybe Napa County could get a slug of Berryessa water during droughts or make better use of the small amount it has.
“I don’t think anyone thinks Berryessa is a large source of water for Napa,” Thomasser said. “But I think we’re interested in just being flexible with our resources.”
Every drop counts, he said.
Napa County cities have their own local reservoirs that they use for water. But the biggest — Lake Hennessey — holds a mere 2% of the water that’s in a full Lake Berryessa.
Lake Berryessa is 23 miles long and three miles wide, with 165 miles of winding shoreline. It can hold 1.6 million acre-feet of water when full behind Monticello Dam, a 300-foot-tall concrete plug across Putah Creek at Devil’s Gate.
The reservoir is presently only 66% full amid the three-year drought. Still, 66% for Berryessa is more than a million acre-feet.
Solano County farms, cities and other interests have entitlements for 181,000 acre-feet annually. That’s enough water as calculated by the Water Education Foundation to serve 181,000 to 362,000 households annually.
Napa County, in contrast, has a small straw in Lake Berryessa. The county’s contract with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation allows for up to 1,500 acre-feet of water annually.
In addition, the county contractually can use this water only for communities in the Putah Creek watershed, such as remote, tiny Berryessa Highlands and Spanish Flat. None can come to Napa Valley.
That’s the situation Napa County faces if it wants to eke out more Berryessa water.
Getting more water
One idea is for Napa County to buy Lake Berryessa water from Solano County to take the edge off of droughts.
The two counties considered such a move during the 2014 drought. Solano County was willing to sell Napa County up to 10,000 acre-feet of emergency Berryessa water from its own allocations.
That drought ended before the water deal came to fruition. The idea is being revived amid the current drought but has yet to move forward.
“So far, nobody in the Solano users has stepped forward to say, ‘We have some water we are willing to sell,’ so the discussion hasn’t gone any further,” said Roland Sanford, general manager of the Solano County Water Agency.
Another possibility is to move some of Napa County’s own 1,500-acre-foot allocation from Lake Berryessa to Napa Valley. That would mean getting that federal restriction lifted that requires the water to be used only in the Berryessa area.
Even if planned resort renovations come to fruition, the county might use only about half of its allocation at the lake.
“There’s a fair amount of water we’re leaving on the table,” Thomasser said. “But we’d have to look at expanding our service area.”
Napa County could soon have that chance. The county’s water contract with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is up for renewal in 2024 and the county could seek changes for the next contract.
Bridging the gap
Another issue is moving the water. There’s a 15-mile mountainous gap between Lake Berryessa and Napa Valley and no canal bridging the distance.
Water officials during that 2014 drought came up with an idea. This plumbing puzzle might be solved in a roundabout way.
Napa County receives State Water Project water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta through the 28-mile-long North Bay Aqueduct. The pipe runs from Barker Slough in Solano County through Jameson Canyon to Napa County.
Meanwhile, Solano County receives Lake Berryessa water through the 33-mile-long Putah South Canal that ends near Cordelia. These two separate water systems at one point come within about 1,700 feet of each other.
The idea is simple — connect the two water systems with a pipe, perhaps a temporary one used only during drought. Then Berryessa water could come to Napa Valley.
Or maybe it’s not as simple as it sounds. Sanford said the connection would be made toward the end of the Putah South Canal, where there is the least amount of capacity.
“There would be some issues to work out for sure,” Sanford said. “I wouldn’t say it’s out of the question. There would be some details to work out.”
Napa County water wars
There’s an obvious Lake Berryessa question — how did such a huge reservoir get created in Napa County without Napa County getting more of its water?
The short answer is Napa County opposed the building of Monticello Dam to avoid having the small townsite of Monticello and Berryessa Valley farmland go underwater. Newspapers from past decades and Harold Rubin’s “The Solano Water Story” tell the tale.
Solano County rancher William Pierce championed damming Putah Creek at Devil’s Gate as early as 1916. He feared Bay Area cities would beat local interests to the undertaking and export water that could otherwise irrigate Solano County farms.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was also interested in building a Putah Creek dam. By 1940, Pierce had convinced Solano County agricultural interests to take the idea seriously.
Frank Douglass of Vacaville drew the assignment of trying to convince other counties to join the push for a dam. As Rubin relates in his book, Douglass didn’t get very far.
“I couldn’t budge Napa or Yolo,” Douglass told Rubin. “There was a guy in Napa County who owned the block brick business and was buying up a lot of land. He didn’t want the dam. The sheriff said if he caught me in town again, he’d put me in jail.”
Solano County ultimately decided to push for a dam on its own and lobbied Congress.
It had help in high places. Gov. Earl Warren, alarmed by a drought, supported the so-called Solano Project in 1948. U.S. Sen. Richard Nixon sponsored legislation to help with the effort.
Napa County officials laid out their case opposing the project during a November 1952 U.S. Senate hearing held in Sacramento, as recorded in The Napa Register.
County Supervisor N.D. Clark called the reservoir-creation effort “a vicious project” that would dislocate 45 families and 350 people. Clark owned a Berryessa Valley ranch that would go underwater.
Napa County had its own idea to dam Putah Creek upstream of the proposed federal reservoir and bring water to Napa Valley vineyards. But Bureau of Reclamation officials made it clear that 100% of Putah Creek water should go into Lake Berryessa.
Perhaps, federal officials said, water for Napa County could be obtained from the Russian River. State Sen. Nathan Coombs, R-Napa and relative of the similarly named city of Napa founder, called this idea “ridiculous.”
County Supervisor Lowell Edington said reclamation officials had “in open debate admitted there was nothing in this for Napa.”
Solano County had its own challenges. Enough farmers had to agree to join the Solano Irrigation District and pay for water to move ahead. Enough did, though some thought tiny Putah Creek could never fill the planned reservoir.
The result — the Bureau of Reclamation build Monticello Dam from 1953 to 1957, Lake Berryessa filled and Solano County farmers had a huge reservoir almost to themselves in water-scarce California. As the Solano County cities of Fairfield, Vallejo, Suisun City and Vacaville grew, they too benefited from the reservoir.
Napa County’s benefit was to be lake recreation.
Today, Napa County is trying to redevelop resorts along the lake to see greater benefits from lake recreation. New marinas, lodges, campsites, restaurants and other attractions are possible.
“A world-class destination,” said a marketing pamphlet seeking resort concessionaires.
And, if the county can squeeze out a little more Berryessa water as well, it will take it.
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You can reach Barry Eberling at 256-2253 or email@example.com