LAKE BERRYESSA — Lake Berryessa is poised to begin another summer tourist season, even as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for a second time launches an attempt to dramatically transform lake recreation.
What’s left for now is a stripped-down version of lake offerings. Two of the seven resorts – Pleasure Cove Marina and Markley Cove Marina – are at full strength, with three others offering camping and other limited services and two closed. A federal boat launch and day use areas remain open.
It’s Lake Berryessa Lite for another summer. It will remain that way for at least a few summers more, even as Congress debates whether to transfer the Berryessa resort renovation efforts from the Bureau of Reclamation to the Bureau of Land Management.
Lake Berryessa in Napa County is more than a huge reservoir that provides water almost exclusively to Solano County farms and cities. It is also a major regional recreation area for fishing, boating, swimming and relaxation in general.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation four years ago leveled five of the seven resorts operated by private concessionaires on federal land, basically creating blank canvasses on which to create something new. It signed a contract with Arizona-based Pensus to build campsites, RV sites, marinas, hotels, a spa, a conference center and other amenities on the vacant land.
But, unsatisfied with the progress being made, the Bureau of Reclamation terminated the Pensus contract in December 2012. Now it is once again trying to re-imagine what Lake Berryessa can be.
The latest timeline calls for awarding contracts to concessionaires for some if not all of the five closed or stripped-down resorts in 2016, with construction starting shortly thereafter and reborn resorts opening in 2017.
During the previous resort redevelopment attempts, some people complained that too much planning happened without public input, even as the lake economy plummeted. This time, the Bureau of Reclamation is conducting community forums every few months.
The latest forum happened Wednesday at the Berryessa senior center. About 40 people attended, from Bureau of Reclamation officials to lake residents and lake business people.
Jeff Laird, the bureau’s Lake Berryessa park manager, talked about the offerings at the three stripped-down resorts with temporary concessionaires – Spanish Flat, Steele Canyon and Putah Canyon recreation areas.
Steele Canyon and Putah Canyon have camping, day use and boat launching. Spanish Flat has camping and day use.
The Bureau of Reclamation recently installed new picnic tables, fire rings and barbecues at the three resorts, Laird said. It installed vault toilets. It brought in docks to Steel Canyon and Putah Canyon that Laird said are more stable and safer than what had been there previously.
Next on the list is trying to bring water to the stripped-down resorts. Laird said work will begin on a Steele Canyon water hookup in June.
“It’s still a major issue,” Craig Morton, president of the Lake Berryessa Chamber of Commerce, told him. “Most people want water.”
Morton runs a pest control business and lives at the lake. He pointed out the two resorts at full strength – Markley Cove and Pleasure Cove – are on the east side of the lake. The west side has the stripped-down resorts without the marinas, shops and other offerings that they had before the renovation effort began.
Linda Frazier of Markley Cove Marina told the group that her resort has rented out all of its marina slips and has a waiting list with 150 people on it.
“Does that give you an idea what we’re talking about, needing more slips along the lake?” Morton told the bureau officials.
After the meeting, Morton called the barbecue pits, fire rings and tables installed at the stripped-down resorts “trinkets.” He compared installing these items to giving a child candy instead of dinner.
“I want dinner,” Morton said.
Laird said the concessionaires have reported that all the resort campsites have been reserved for the upcoming Memorial Day holiday.
“I think that’s very good news,” he said.
The bureau’s Central California Area Office Manager Drew Lessard gave an update on the long-term resort renovation efforts.
He talked about making site plans for the resorts through the lens of financial studies showing what uses are economically feasible. The results should be ready by June, he said.
The bureau this fall will launch the environmental studies for the renovations. It plans to design 95 percent of the infrastructure – roads, water and similar resort needs – so the new concessionaires can start construction when contracts get awarded, he said.
For Morton, the day the renovated resorts open can’t come soon enough.
“We’re bleeding up here, the amount of people coming and using the lake,” he said.
The Bureau of Reclamation estimates that Lake Berryessa in its heyday, with all seven resorts open and operating at full strength, attracted 1.5 million visitors annually. That estimate has fallen in recent years to about a third of that number.
Not everyone is confident that the Bureau of Reclamation is the best agency to oversee a Lake Berryessa recreation renaissance. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, in March introduced legislation to transfer responsibility for Lake Berryessa’s recreational lands from the Bureau of Reclamation to Bureau of Land Management. He recently announced that 165 members of Congress have signed on as co-authors.
“Lake Berryessa is an important part of our county and we’ve waited too long for the Bureau of Reclamation to effectively execute its redevelopment plan,” Thompson said in a press release. “New management is needed and a redevelopment plan that works for the lake, families and businesses needs to be implemented.”
The proposed legislation states that the Bureau of Reclamation would continue to be in charge of Monticello Dam and the water project facilities. No Solano County water contracts would be changed.
Lake Berryessa is in Napa County. The Napa County Board of Supervisors voted April 1 to support Thompson’s legislation. Supervisors said that the Bureau of Reclamation’s expertise is managing water, not managing recreation.
“I think what we have finally determined is working with them is like putting a square peg into a round hole,” Supervisor Diane Dillon said.
Stu Williams of the Lake Berryessa Chamber of Commerce told supervisors that having the Bureau of Reclamation trying to redevelop the resorts is like having a podiatrist trying to do brain surgery.
Lake Berryessa resident Peter Kilkus has long criticized the Bureau of Reclamation’s handling of the resort renovations. But he’s not certain he wants to see a switch to the Bureau of Land Management just as the Bureau of Reclamation presses ahead with its latest effort.
“I’m thinking, let it play out with the Bureau of Reclamation,” Kilkus said Wednesday. “And then let it shift over to Land Management. Why jump off now in the middle?”
Lessard said he cannot comment on the proposed management switch for the resorts that is being debated in Congress.
Reach Barry Eberling at 427-6929 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/beberlingdr.