With the high-noon sun above and the blue waters of Lake Berryessa below, the twin engines of the Bureau of Reclamation boat rev louder as the wake behind us grows.
It’s mid-July, and the lake’s recreational charms are on full display. Out beyond the bow, the sun-burnt hills are a backdrop to the water’s unruffled calm, and the stifling heat of the late afternoon is still hours away.
In a tranquil moment such as this, it’s hard to imagine how this lake, so conveniently near yet a world away from the San Francisco and Sacramento metropolitan areas, could find itself so mired in problems today.
Lake Berryessa in the second decade of the 21st century is in a state of tumult unprecedented in its 55 years of existence. Businesses have shuttered, home values have plummeted, the number of foreclosures has risen.
But the national economy is only partially to blame for the lake’s struggles. As a consequence of a change in federal management policy, the flow of tourists, once the lifeblood of the lake’s economy, has dropped considerably from its past peaks. The Bureau of Reclamation is struggling to revive the seven resorts that were once the lake’s economic engines.
Those resorts once had lodging, trailers, restaurants, stores, a tennis court and an ice cream parlor, almost all of which are now gone. Much of this was torn down in the last decade when the bureau, which manages recreation at the lake, opted to change six of the seven resorts’ operators.
We pull up along the lake’s western shore, and bureau spokesman Pete Lucero points out some of the sites where 1,300 trailers and mobile homes once stood. The trailers clogged some of the best recreation areas of the lake, he said. Some had no-trespassing signs posted, making public federal land appear privately owned.
The bureau was successful in clearing out much of Lake Berryessa’s early development. The problem is that nothing has been built to replace what’s been removed. The bureau and the new private operator, Arizona-based Pensus Group, have promised new facilities and new recreational opportunities, but crippling delays have hindered those plans.
The bureau and Pensus are now in mediation to work out a new redevelopment schedule. If this fails, the bureau may pursue terminating the Pensus contract, which runs until 2040, and find another operator.
Little at Lake Berryessa has ever gone according to plan. Recreation wasn’t a part of the original plan for the lake, which had been conceived as a source of water for agriculture and cities in Solano County.
Yet, by the summer of 1958, a year after Monticello Dam’s completion, the lake had 800 boats on it, despite the lack of boat ramps or proper access roads.
That’s when the Bureau of Reclamation contracted with Napa County to have the county assume management of the lake’s recreation.
“We weren’t in the recreation business,” Lucero said. “We were in the dam-building business. Whenever Reclamation has to manage recreation, our first option is to have someone else do it.”
A year later, the National Parks Service produced Lake Berryessa’s original public-use plan.
The plan envisioned the lake as a recreational Shangri-La, drawing droves of tourists from Sacramento and the Bay Area. Day-use sites for picnicking would be built, while the resorts could host longer stays. Boating, hiking, camping, fishing and nature-watching would be the main, family-oriented recreational uses. A four-lane highway would be needed to support all the visitor
The federal government, however, provided no money to fund the plan and Napa County couldn’t afford the cost, so the county solicited private concessionaires to build and run the resorts. The county signed 30-year contracts with each one.
To finance their projects, the concessionaires leased spaces to owners of trailers and mobile homes whose extended stays would provide year-round revenue beyond the peak tourist season.
The trailers weren’t a part of the original plan, but they sprang up along the western shore and stayed there for the next four decades.
“The (original plan) was a great document for public-use planning purposes, but it kind of went sideways,” Lucero said.
Napa County managed recreation until 1975, when it handed it off to Reclamation. The bureau extended the
30-year concessionaire contracts for 20 years.
When the U.S. General Accounting Office and the Department of Interior pressured the bureau to get the resorts to improve their trailer-park atmospheres, they added campgrounds, but stashed them in the worst areas, Lucero said.
It was hard to get the resorts to do more because of the contracts the county had agreed to decades earlier, Lucero added.
“We were managing contracts for 50 years that somebody else had written,” he said.
In the early 2000s, with the contracts expiring at the end of the decade, the bureau overhauled recreation at Lake Berryessa, creating a plan that aligns more closely with the original vision from 1959, Lucero said.
Removing the trailers opened up land for public use, with the goal of fostering short-term visitors to the lake who would have diverse recreational options.
“Their intent was to have a seamless transition. Well, this process has been anything but. We just haven’t seen it yet,” said Stu Williams, a Berryessa resident.
Th Bureau of Reclamation started the bidding process on the new resort contracts in 2007, but that effort hit its first hiccup soon after. Federal lawyers determined that the bureau wasn’t following the law, causing the whole process to be thrown out and started anew.
By the time the second process started, in 2009, many of the resorts’ contracts had expired. When the bureau and Pensus signed the new contract in April 2010, the resorts were already shut down.
“Those contracts expired and there was nothing we could do,” Lucero said.
U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, has blasted Reclamation’s management of the situation, asking that the Bureau of Land Management, which manages wilderness land north of the lake, take over.
“Enough is enough,” Thompson told a congressional subcommittee in May. “Reassurances and placations from the Bureau of Reclamation that they’re fixing the problem are no longer enough. We need the matter resolved.”
Lucero said Reclamation remains committed to its plan for the lake.
“For 50 years this was kind of an exclusive site. It was kind of an unknown jewel. There wasn’t a lot of public use here,” he contends.
Lucero said he imagines a future in which Lake Berryessa is marketed as a part of a “destination Napa” package.
“Before, you never had a nexus between Lake Berryessa and Napa,” said Drew Lessard, a Reclamation deputy area manager. “This mediation with Pensus — we’re getting through that.”
More changes could be on the horizon. Thompson and U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., have sponsored two bills in Congress that would create a National Conservation Area designation stretching from Snow Mountain, in the Mendocino National Forest, to the lake.
Carol Kunze, the Napa director for Tuleyome, a conservation group pushing the bill, said the conservation area would help serve visitors with an interest in outdoor recreation. Kunze envisions a series of hiking trail corridors that are currently lacking around the lake.
More importantly, focusing on the lake’s natural resources could help diversify its visitors, bringing in more people during the off-season months before and after summer, she said.
“The question is, can the eastern part of Napa County become part of a valuable contributing portion to the Napa County community?” Kunze asked.
Kunze, who lives at the lake, said she believes the conservation designation will be a positive benefit to a lake community suffering so much negativity.
“If we can get concessionaires redeveloped and get the trail systems created, maybe one day people in the Bay Area will pay attention to Lake Berryessa,” Kunze said. “We are really never mentioned unless it’s something negative.”
George Gamble, a rancher who lives on the east side of the lake, disagrees, and questions the benefits of the designation.
“This would be like a piece of Swiss cheese,” Gamble said of the map of the National Conservation Area (NCA), which includes pockets of land in Mendocino, Lake, Yolo and Napa counties. “My feeling is they should keep the NCA north of Napa County. I think it’s a mistake doing it here in Napa County.”
Whatever happens in Washington, D.C., Williams said he hopes Berryessa never loses its down-home, blue-collar character, where residents feel comfortable sitting on one another’s front porches.
He’s lived at locations throughout the Bay Area, but didn’t find that kind of warmth until he came to Lake Berryessa, Williams said. He added he owns properties in the Bay Area that he and his wife still maintain, but the lake always draws them back.
“We cannot get back here fast enough,” Williams said. “I love this lake. It’s paradise for my wife and I.”
Still, Williams can’t help but think the lake’s problems are far from over. It could be years before the reborn resorts begin full operation, and more years before the tourist flow recovers to full strength, healing the lake’s economy.
“I think the whole lake is going to go through a very difficult time,” Williams said. “I really care about what’s happening up here. This area’s worth fighting for.”