Death came to the Berryessa Valley, a fertile paradise where families had farmed for a century, during the rains of the winter of 1957.
The residents, ranchers and farmers had left, the buildings were razed, the orchards cut down, the crops uprooted. Even the graves in the cemetery were exhumed and moved to higher ground.
By order of the United States government, almost everything of value was removed. All that remained that winter was the two-lane highway and the stone bridge — Napa County’s longest — over Putah Creek.
By then, the 300-foot-high Monticello Dam was complete at Devil’s Gate, where Putah Creek broke east through the Blue Ridge, carving a canyon — and a natural dam site — on its way to the Central Valley.
The creek had run through the valley for thousands of years, but now its waters were backing up. They seeped up the highway, over the flattened town of Monticello, over the scoured farmland.
On Feb. 26, 1957, crews poured the last bucket of concrete for Monticello Dam. Per tradition, they tossed in a few coins as well.
With the dam’s completion, Napa County, which today so prizes its world-renowned agriculture, lost one-eighth of its farmland, an area with annual agricultural production valued at $1 million in 1947.
What it gained was a reservoir, Lake Berryessa, whose benefits would flow primarily eastward. Lake Berryessa would become Solano County’s economic treasure, an exclusive source of reliable water for its farms and cities.
In 1948, the federal government had to choose between saving Berryessa Valley for farming or flooding it to benefit neighboring Solano. Napa County touted the valley’s 12,000 acres as some of the most fertile in California. But in the eyes of the dam builders, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Devil’s Gate was one of the best dam sites in the entire Central Valley.
The decision to flood Berryessa Valley reflected California’s insatiable need for water, its most precious resource. As the historian W.H. Hutchinson observed, irrigation produces more value every year in California agriculture than the value of all the gold mined in the Gold Rush.
Monticello Dam was designed to hold back 1.6 million acre-feet of water (1 acre-foot equals about 326,000 gallons), an enormous amount. In comparison, Napa, the county’s population center, uses less than 15,000 acre-feet per year, none of it from Lake Berryessa. Each year, the dam spills more than 200,000 acre-feet into Solano County, enough water to irrigate more than 80,000 acres of cropland and supply cities such as Vacaville, Vallejo, Suisun City and Fairfield, with enough left over for Anheuser-Busch to make Budweiser beer.
Solano County received a tremendous gift when Monticello Dam was built. Federal taxpayers covered the $47 million in construction costs, which paid for the dam, a diversion dam, and a 33-mile canal to deliver the water. Solano paid that back over 50 years at zero percent interest.
Lake Berryessa is the largest federal reservoir in California whose waters are available almost exclusively to users in one county, which sits just miles from the source, said Drew Lessard, a deputy area manager for the Bureau of Reclamation.
“It is a vital economic resource,” said David Okita, general manager of the Solano County Water Agency. “We don’t like to brag about this, but we’ve got it pretty good.”
It cost Napa County dearly. Not only did the county lose some of its best agricultural land, but it receives a pittance of the water. The communities and resorts at the lake get Berryessa water, but it amounts to a small fraction of what Solano receives.
In 2005, Napa County studied what Lake Berryessa had cost county taxpayers the previous fiscal year. With the lakeside resorts fully operational, producing tax revenue, the county still lost about $700,000, according to Helene Franchi, a county budget analyst. The lake was averaging between 1 million and 1.5 million annual visitors back then, according to Bureau of Reclamation statistics. Doing the same analysis in 2006, the county’s loss was calculated to be more than $800,000.
Franchi said the analysis looked at the costs of providing police, fire and emergency medical services to the lake, as well as the costs to the county jail for housing people arrested at Berryessa, among other expenses. The county found that 75 percent of the county’s costs were to pay for Napa County sheriff’s deputies and other law-enforcement expenses. The revenue didn’t come close to covering the expense, she said.
Because the resorts are on federal property, the federal government gives the county an average annual payment of $127,000 to pay for services that would be covered by the property tax revenue the county would otherwise collect, Franchi said.
The county’s costs have dropped in recent years because the flow of tourists has slackened due to scaled-back resort operations, but so have tax revenues, Franchi noted.
The lake is still a financial drain on county coffers. In the past two years, the county has lent $3 million to cover operational deficits and other costs for two troubled utility districts at the lake, one serving Berryessa Highlands, the other Berryessa Estates.
These loans will almost certainly be written off as county subsidies, with the prospect that yet more loans will have to be made, officials said.
Considering what the value of Berryessa Valley’s agricultural production was, and would be if it still existed, the size of the loss grows.
“We fought that thing as long as we could,” Napa County Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht recently said of Monticello Dam. “We’ve been paying for it ever since.”
Monday in Part Two: Berryessa old-timers grieve for a lost way of life
Get local news delivered to your inbox!
Subscribe to our Daily Headlines newsletter.