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Napa's Lake Marie dam to release water for fish under 1915 law

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Lake Marie

Under a lawsuit settlement between Water Audit California and the state Department of State Hospitals, water will be released from Lake Marie to help downstream trout.

The Lake Marie reservoir, created in the late 19th century as part of a Napa State Hospital water mini-empire, might in the 21st century help locally rare steelhead trout.

Water Audit California has used lawsuits to try to gain more water from local reservoirs for downstream fish habitat. In this case, the California Department of State Hospitals recently agreed to a settlement.

It all starts with state-owned Lake Marie, which today is a hiking and fishing destination at Skyline Wilderness Park in southeast Napa. The idea is to release water to boost Camille Creek's spring and summer flows and help aquatic life. 

This is a perfect example of how doing a small thing can make a big difference, according to Water Audit California.

“The agreement will improve conditions for fish in (Camille) creek while allowing Skyline Park visitors to continue to enjoy Lake Marie as a hiking destination,” a Water Audit California press release said.

An alternative would have been removing Lake Marie Dam to allow water to flow freely. Neither party preferred doing this because Lake Marie is used for recreation, the release said.

The Department of State Hospitals, in response to Napa Valley Register questions, said it hired a consultant to develop the Camille Creek Monitoring Program. “This program includes the scheduled release of water from Lake Marie Dam,” the state said in an email.

And water released from Lake Marie Dam means more water for Camille Creek.

Camille Creek runs from Skyline Park through southeast Napa city neighborhoods. It courses through the Phillips Elementary School and Camille Creek Community School campuses before joining Tulucay Creek, which runs to the tidal section of the Napa River north of Imola Avenue.

The Napa County Resource Conservation District surveyed Camille Creek in September 2008 and found most of it dry. The lower reaches had no rearing or spawning value, but might be used by migrating steelhead trout, the agency concluded.

The Camille Creek Monitoring Program could help both rainbow trout in the Skyline Park area and steelhead trout, a state report said.

Steelhead and rainbow trout are the same species. But while rainbow trout spend their lives in freshwater, steelhead trout spend part of their lives in the ocean before returning to freshwater to spawn.

Water Audit California in its lawsuit pointed to Fish and Game code section 5937, which originated in 1915. That law states that dam owners shall at all times allow enough water to pass by their dams to keep fish below in good condition.

Like most dam owners, the Department of State Hospitals hasn't operated its dam according to the rule. That creates artificially dry conditions downstream and makes it harder for fish to survive, Water Audit California said.

Lake Marie comes with a history that is bound up with Napa State Hospital’s history.

Napa State Hospital opened in 1875 as the Napa Insane Asylum. This 500-bed institution was housed in a four-story, Gothic-style building that looked like a Transylvanian castle — in fact, it was nicknamed “The Castle.” The state demolished that landmark in the 1940s.

Hospital lands ultimately covered more than 2,000 acres. The hospital had its own orchards, vegetable gardens, and dairy and poultry ranches to provide the operation with food.

It also had its own water system. Water Audit California estimates the hospital dammed the creek to form Lake Marie in about 1880.

Certainly, something was going on by Jan. 18, 1884. The Napa Register, in an article on the hospital that year, mentioned an earthen dam, and that trustees had authorized using iron pipe to move water into a reservoir.

The hospital lands ultimately had five dams — Lake Marie Dam, Coombs Ranch Dam, Lake Camille Dam, Lake Louise Dam and Como Dam.

There’s nothing grandiose about this water system today. The largest reservoir is Lake Marie, the fishing hole and view reward for Skyline hikers. Lake Como is dry. Lake Louise and Lake Camille look like ponds.

A hand-drawn sketch of the water system in its heyday, along with historic photographs, can be found in the book “Napa State Hospital” by Patricia Prestinary.

You can reach Barry Eberling at 707-256-2253 or beberling@napanews.com

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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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