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Lake Curry reservoir sits unused amid drought in eastern Napa County

Lake Curry

Lake Curry in Napa County is a reservoir that sits unused amid drought. The view is from the PG&E fire alert camera atop Mount Vaca.

A drought-wary Napa County looking for ways to weather dry spells has a small-but-not-insubstantial reservoir sitting unused within its boundaries.

Lake Curry, located in remote southeastern Napa County near Gordon Valley, seems to be the ugly duckling of the water world. Amid a state where water is precious, it is the reservoir that no community is using to slake its thirst.

The Solano County city of Vallejo created Lake Curry a century ago to hold 10,000-acre feet of water and the lake is permitted by the state to provide 3,750-acre feet annually. For context, the city of Napa uses about 14,000-acre feet annually.

Vallejo hasn't used the lake since 1992. Why not a Napa County city?

The city of Napa isn’t looking to Lake Curry as a backup water supply. City Deputy Utilities Director Joy Eldredge mentioned possible challenges, such as pipes to move the water.

Not even American Canyon, which has long desired another water source, is biting. Lake Curry could supply more water annually than the city uses.

American Canyon took a close look at Lake Curry in 2015 and rejected it. The city estimated buying the reservoir might cost $20 million to $30 million and the lengthy water lines might need upgrades.

“There certainly was a cost associated with it,” Mayor Leon Garcia said.

So there sits a water source unused within Napa County’s borders, like an unwanted oasis amid a desert of drought. But Vallejo wants to see something done with Lake Curry.

Lake Curry challenges

Vallejo knows all about the Lake Curry challenges.

It used to treat raw Lake Curry water in a small water treatment plant next to the reservoir before piping water to the city. It stopped using the reservoir in 1992 when this plant couldn't meet increasingly stringent state water quality standards.

Another option would be to bring raw Lake Curry water to the treatment plant within city borders near Six Flags Magic Mountain. The city looked at this possibility in 2002 and found obstacles.

In the old days, Vallejo took treated water from Lake Curry to the city in a pipe and served Gordon Valley residents on the way. Once it could no longer use the reservoir treatment plant, it had to use this same pipe to bring treated water from elsewhere to Gordon Valley.

That meant the pipe was no longer available in 2002 to transport Lake Curry water. Today, the plumbing is still lacking.

“It would be very expensive and would likely take years to design and construct a configuration of the existing system for raw water delivery from Lake Curry to Vallejo’s main water treatment plant at Fleming Hill,” city Acting Water Director Beth Schoenberger said recently by email.

Another issue is maintaining a dam that, if it failed, would send water surging down Suisun Creek toward Fairfield/Suisun City. Schoenberger noted that state Division of Safety of Dams requirements have grown more stringent since the Oroville Dam failure in 2017.

The Lake Curry dam requires significant and expensive upgrades, Schoenberger wrote.

Still, she said, Vallejo wants Lake Curry to serve somebody. The city intends to address the dam issue by making partnerships that help finance needed upgrades and benefit the community.

How this might happen could become clearer in the coming months. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation last summer awarded Vallejo $200,000 for a $495,000 effort to develop a Lake Curry water marketing strategy.

The effort will bring together farmers and ranchers; rural, domestic and municipal water users; environmental groups, and federal, state, and local governments, a Bureau press release said. Water could benefit agriculture, municipal and ecological needs.

Meanwhile, Vallejo is doing a bathymetric survey to confirm how much water is available, Schoenberger said.

Open space and fish

Napa County cities aren't pursuing Lake Curry for a water source. Yet there's another way the lake might someday serve local residents.

The Napa County Regional Park and Open Space District and other open space groups have long coveted the reservoir. Open space advocates look at a glimmering lake set amid hills of chaparral and oaks and see a great place to hike and enjoy nature.

“The Lake Curry property can only be described as a jewel,” an Open Space District report said.

A major issue is finding money for such a venture. The Open Space District is facing a financial crunch in the wake of fires that destroyed Napa County resorts that generated hotel tax money. The county funds the district with some of these revenues.

No talks involving the Open Space District and Vallejo over Lake Curry have happened recently.

“We continue to be extremely interested in it,” Open Space District General Manager Chris Cahill said.

The Open Space District wouldn’t have to own Lake Curry, he said. He noted that the district manages a hiking area on land owned by the city of Napa at the city's Lake Hennessey reservoir in the mountains east of Rutherford.

“We could look at doing something like that with the city of Vallejo,” he said. “But even that takes resources and we’re stretched quite thin under the current budget regime.”

The California Land Stewardship Institute is also interested in Lake Curry, in this case as a water source for steelhead trout downstream in Suisun Creek. It recently released a report that envisioned various futures for the reservoir.

One idea is to make the creek a mitigation bank for steelhead. People with projects elsewhere could buy into the bank to satisfy legal protections for the species. Lake Curry would provide the water.

“There’s a pretty good number of steelhead in that stream,” said Laurel Marcus of California Land Stewardship Institute. “We’d like to have them benefit from releases from that lake.”

Such use would benefit steelhead, but not be a drought difference-maker for Napa County.

Napa County has two reservoirs within its borders that don’t serve its cities. One is massive Lake Berryessa, a federal reservoir that sends most of its water to Solano County cities and farms.

Lake Berryessa’s story has been oft-told — how the Bureau of Reclamation built Monticello Dam in the mid-1950s after lobbying from Solano County agricultural interests. Napa County opted not to participate and opposed the project because the reservoir flooded farmland and the townsite for Monticello.

Lake Curry is a far smaller reservoir, designed to hold less than 1% of the water of Lake Berryessa. How Solano County interests created this reservoir in Napa County is more obscure.

Vallejo's one-time water empire

Vallejo at one time had a local water empire. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, it created Lake Madigan and Lake Frey reservoirs in Solano County in the mountains near Napa County’s Wild Horse Valley.

That wasn’t enough for Vallejo by 1920, given Mare Island Naval Shipyard needed more water. The city wanted to add yet another local reservoir to its portfolio.

The Scally ranch in Gordon Valley in east Napa County was the chosen site. Here was a 27-square mile watershed and 33 inches of average rainfall. Vallejo residents in 1920 voted to issue $1.25 million in bonds for the project, the newspaper reported at the time.

Ranch owner Ed or Fred Scally — newspapers report the name differently — wanted more money than the $125,000 offered by Vallejo for 689 acres. This included the 300-acre heart of his ranch with good fruit land, as well as sections good for hay and grazing.

Vallejo, undeterred, filed suit in Napa County to take the land by eminent domain. A jury later decided Scally should receive $176,000, to Vallejo’s disappointment.

The city built the dam and by 1926 Lake Curry was full. People flocked there to see it.

“Those who expected to see a small body of water had their eyes opened, so to speak, as the reservoir is one of the largest in the state,” the March 3, 1926 The Napa Journal reported.

Of course, that was two decades before the Bureau of Reclamation created Lake Berryessa that would dwarf Lake Curry.

Vallejo used Lake Curry until 1992, then stopped because of stringent, new water treatment standards adopted by the state. It would have had to renovate the treatment plant at the reservoir at great expense to keep using the water.

The city then looked at letting Lake Curry water run down Suisun Creek to where the Putah South Canal crossed carrying Lake Berryessa water. Put Curry water into the canal and the water could be taken to Fleming water treatment plant within the city.

But laws to protect rare fish in Suisun Creek complicated matters. By 2009, Vallejo officials said they were willing to sell Lake Curry.

Now the “for sale” sign is down and Vallejo wants to once again find a use for the reservoir. But there are no indications that future will include helping to ease Napa County’s droughts.

Downtown Napa mainstay, Shackford's Kitchen Store and More, is going to change its business model from brick and mortar retailer to online merchant. Take a tour inside the store here.

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.

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