Wednesday, August 22, 2007

August 22, 2007

County keeps its word on Berryessa

Reimbursement for reservoir project took 50 years

The Monticello Dam at Lake Berryessa was completed in 1957., After 50 years, the Solano Project is paid for. Photo by Brad Zweerink

By Barry Eberling

FAIRFIELD - Solano County water users have made good on a 50-year-old, multimillion dollar pledge that allowed cities to grow and farms to prosper.

The county during the 1950s asked the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to build Monticello Dam and create the massive Lake Berryessa reservoir. In return, water users in the county would reimburse the government about $40 million of the $48 million in construction costs, minus the lake's recreation facilities in Napa County. Just in time for Monticello Dam's golden anniversary - the bureau completed the dam in 1957 - water users have apparently met their obligations. Pending some double-checking by bureau accountants, the Solano Project is paid off.

That doesn't mean water bills will plummet. Payments on the project have been so low, they are only a fraction of the water budgets for county cities.

Nor will Solano County own 300-foot-high Monticello Dam and Lake Berryessa. At this point, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will continue to do so. "It's not like your mortgage," said David Okita, general manager of the Solano County Water Agency.

But local water users have met their obligations.

"It's a pretty monumental event," Fairfield Assistant Public Works Director Rick Wood said.

Solano County farmers early in the 20th century started talking about damming Putah Creek at Devils Gate. Growing cities joined the lobbying effort by mid-century, and the federal government finally agreed to build Monticello Dam. When full, Lake Berryessa holds 1.4 million acre-feet of water - enough to survive a seven-year drought. Virtually all of it goes to county farms and cities.

Granted, the county got what now looks like a great deal on the Solano Project. The federal government 50 years ago charged cities $15 per acre-foot for Berryessa water and farms $2.65 per acre-foot. Those amounts never changed. The federal government charged no interest and set no deadline for the reimbursement to be completed.

Still, the federal government in the early- to mid-20th century handed out many deals like that.

"Water supply projects done by the federal government were intended to be very, very affordable," Wood said. "They were intended to help settle the West, where water was scarce." States in those days didn't have the means to build such big projects, Wood said. The federal water projects transformed the western United States, he said.

And what now appears to be a great deal looked riskier back in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Solano County residents debated whether the Solano Project would be an expensive boondoggle. Yolo and Napa counties decided not to take part.

"There were very intelligent people who made a different choice and said, 'This is too expensive for us, we can't afford this project,' " Wood said.

Local water users may have paid off the project two years ago, Okita said. If that's the case, the county could have some $2 million coming back to it.

Fairfield will take the end of Solano Project payments into account the next time it calculates water rates, Wood said. But Solano Project payments have not been a big part of Fairfield's water costs. The city has paid about $375,000 annually, compared to a water budget of almost $29 million.

Meanwhile, cities still have far greater expenses associated with Lake Berryessa water.

"The water is essentially free," Wood said. "It costs a fortune to store it, deliver it and treat it."

Reach Barry Eberling at 425-4646, Ext. 232, or at

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