How It All Began: The Origins of the “Big Lie”

The Big Lie 

"The Lake Berryessa resorts, especially the mobile homes in the resorts, discouraged the general public from accessing the lake, prevented the public from using the best parts of the shoreline, and also polluted the lake." 

Poor planning by the Federal Government began on Day 1 of Lake Berryessa's life. It morphed into an ongoing struggle to economically develop the lake's recreation facilities with no source of revenue offered by any Government agency. Only Napa County stepped up to the challenge and developed the basically successful system of seven resorts operated by concessionaires, using revenue from leased mobile homes, to pay for the day uses services provided to the general recreating public.

Lake Berryessa was formed in 1957 by the completion of the Monticello Dam. The project, as authorized by the Congress, contained no provisions for recreational facilities. The Bureau of Reclamation believed that, because of the anticipated radical fluctuation of the water level, the lake would not become a major recreation area. While the lake was being formed, however, the public began to use it, and it soon was apparent that it would be a major water recreation site.

Because facilities were not available to accommodate the public and because Reclamation lacked both authorization and funds to develop and manage such facilities, the BOR sought to have the State of California or local government agencies assume the responsibility of managing public recreational facilities at the lake. The State expressed no interest and, in November 1957, advised Reclamation that it had no funds available for such development.

In July 1958 the BOR entered into a management agreement with Napa County for the administration and development of recreation facilities at the lake. This agreement, as rewritten in 1962, provided that the county, and all parties acting under the county's authority, would develop the area in accordance with a Public Use Plan (PUP) for Lake Berryessa.

The Public Use Plan was prepared for the Bureau by the National Park Service in 1959. The plan stipulated the areas that should be developed and the number of boat launching, picnicking, camping, and other recreational facilities that should be provided in each area. Napa County adopted the policy that the recreational facilities would be developed and managed by private concessionaires, at no cost to county taxpayers, because users of the lake included many nonresidents of the county.

The county established the Lake Berryessa Park Commission to administer and manage the lands around the lake. The county loaned funds to the commission to construct a park headquarters but made no commitment of funds toward the development of recreational facilities.

Subsequently Napa County entered into contracts with seven concessionaires to develop and operate recreational facilities at various locations at the lake. Each concessionaire contract provided for scheduled completion dates for public recreational development and provided that all facilities be completed by the end of calendar year 1966.

These development costs were to be recovered by charging the general public admission fees. In addition, the contracts with the seven concessionaires provided for the county to receive three percent of the concessionaires' gross proceeds as a franchise fee. These funds were to be used by the county to finance the Lake Berryessa Park Commission. Any excess funds were to be used for public-use development at the lake.

The Public Use Plan provided for one of the areas at the lake commonly known as Bum’s Beach, to be developed into a major public-use area by Napa County. It was to contain up to 50 boat launching ramps, 4,000 picnic sites, 600 camping sites, and swimming areas. Bums' Beach (now Oak Shores) was the only area at the lake available to the general public on a no-charge basis and was Napa County's contribution toward public recreational facilities.

A major difference existed in the development at Lake Berryessa compared to development at the other lakes in the region at the time. The development and construction of picnicking and overnight camping facilities at the other lakes had been carried out by the managing Federal or State agency. Upon completion many of these facilities were turned over to private concessionaires for operation and management.

At Lake Berryessa all development, construction, and management had been left to concessionaires who had to finance the costs of these activities. The major development effort at all seven concessionaire areas was the addition of mobile homes. Napa County officials at the time confirmed the reasons why they considered that the inclusion of long-term, mobile-homes was necessary.

The revenue from the long-term leases of the mobile-homes provided the concessionaires with steady year-round incomes which could not be realized from seasonal picnicking and overnight camping facilities. They stated that public-use facilities, such as picnic and camp sites, did not provide an adequate return on investment and that the concessionaires had developed the mobile-home parks to help cover the costs of developing and operating seasonal­type, public-use facilities.


Editor's Note: In my research of the history of Lake Berryessa I came upon this interesting 45-year old Oakland Tribune article. It discusses the turmoil of the early '70s which led to Napa County giving management of the lake back to the Bureau of Reclamation in 1975. This was the period which spawned "The Big Lie" about the lake which was  used again in the 2000s and led to the present situation.


County, Lake Businesses Losing in Lake Berryessa Fuss (1971)

By Norm Hannon, Oakland Tribune, Saturday, November 27, 1971

“Pat Botts has completely stymied the government,” says Napa County Administrator Al Haberger, a little helplessly. “Don’t say one person can’t do anything,” he goes on with grudging admiration. “She has raised hell. She’s brought in Nader’s Raiders, Senator Tunney, an the General Accounting Office. The federal bureaucracy is incapable of making a decision because of Pat Botts,” he concludes.

Mrs. Botts is the Lake Berryessa real estate agent and antique dealer who for a number of years has been blasting the way Napa County has been running things at Lake Berryessa, the popular 25-square mile reservoir which it took over in 1958 from the Bureau of Reclamation.

So far her efforts have resulted in:

·       A moratorium on any further development by the seven concessionaires at the lake whose mobile home developments and docks cover substantial areas west and south sides.

·       A broadside in Ralph Nader’s report, “Power and Land in California,” charging misuse of government land.

·       A report by the National Park Service, issued last month, recommending that it take over and operate Berryessa as a National Recreation Area, which would push Napa County out of the picture and conceivably wipe out the concessionaires.

·       A bill introduced in Congress by Sen. John Tunney implementing the Park Service’s recommendation.

·       An audit by the General Accounting Office which absolves the seven concessionaires of any profit gouging and reveals, in fact, that only two of them are making any money.

In a remodeled schoolhouse on Route 121 near the lake, where she lives with her husband, Mrs. Botts keeps metal filing box full of documents to support her charges. Her concise presentation is followed by a slide showing of conditions at the various resorts, and she will offer to accompany any doubters on a guided tout of the lake.

Her answers are quick and she has hundreds of facts and figures at the ready. Her remarks sometimes get a bit personal. She admits to one economic motive for her campaign. Real estate in the area is hard to sell when it’s so much cheaper to buy a mobile home and put it on federal land at the water’s edge. Mobile home sites and hook-ups go for about $500 per year. Taxes outside the federal “take line” runs as high as $18 per hundred.

She would like to see a faster pace of development on surrounding lands, but she says the visual pollution on the lake shore and other ecological considerations also concern her, including lack of public access to most of the 7,000 federal acres surrounding the lake.

This last point hits the crux of the argument over what has happened at Berryessa in the last 13 years.

At the northern end of the lake, on a gate which bars access to the road down the forbidden east side, there are two signs. The big one reads, “Farm Access Road, Do Not Enter.” Beside it,  only inches away, is a smaller sign: “Boundary, Lake Berryessa, U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation.” The bureau’s buffalo seal makes it official. This is federal land from which the public has been barred by a county ordinance. About 15 people have been arrested for trespassing on the east side of the lake in the last 12 years.

A strong case can be made for keeping any kind of permanent development off the east side. The area is covered with fragile native grasses and small oaks and the curiously folded ridge behind it frames the lake beautifully and sets its character. Yet the only use allowed on it is grazing by three private lessees, Herbert Gunn, a member of the Park Commission, the Procter and Gamble Company which owns 13,000 adjoining acres, and Jose DelSante.

Ed Bernard, a Napa County supervisor from St. Helena, remarks that the Bureau of Reclamation made some “odd compromises with the property owners on the east side.”

The park service’s report says, “Appropriate uses (for the east side) include shoreline fishing access and grazing (the latter at least until such time as minor development is warranted or the pollution from cattle wastes reaches a point at which it becomes unacceptable.)

Gil Yates, the park director, points out that a serious fire hazard exists on the east side in the summer. But he is more concerned about the problem of policing it. For the 10 years the county has run things at the lake, the same five rangers, using four boats, have had responsibility for the entire area.

Under present financing there is no prospect of beefing up Yates’ thinly stretched ranger force, so his concerns are understandable. It’s easier just to keep people off the east side, which is probably 60 miles long or more, counting all the coves and inlets. It’s a rather uncomfortable place in the afternoon summer sun anyway, with temperature often topping 100. In the winter, however, when fishermen are the main users, they can’t see why they should be kept off when cattle aren’t.

Yates is a one-time owner of the Berryessa Marina, which he sold in 1966. He denies one published report that suggested he might still retain an interest in it. He states flatly that he doesn’t.

On the west side where all the uproar centers, there is as much complaining about what the county hasn’t done as there is about the space the resort owners have taken up. A 25-mile drive from the dam to the Fill, a popular fishing area at the north end, won’t bring you to a picnic table. The only toilets are two pairs at “Bum’s Beach,” the largest continuous stretch of public access on the west side.

All the trash cans have been provided by a beer company, although the county does spot burlap sacks at intervals on trees and picks them up periodically with the garbage boat. Among dozens of fishermen this reporter spoke with up and down the west side the main complaints were the lack of access to the choicest areas and the high cost of getting a boat in the water. This is what made bank fishermen of them. There are enough good spots between the resorts to catch fish.

They complain about everything except the fishing, which is fabulous. Bass, rainbow trout, silver salmon, and crappies teem in the lake. If it’s polluted they’re lapping it up. And they grow big. None of them believe the lake is polluted, except perhaps near the docks. “I drink the water right out of the lake when I’m out in my boat,” said Merle Lear of Fairfield, a vehicle inspector for the state.

All but one of the anglers favored the plan for a National Recreation Area. They came from throughout the Bay Area and from as far away as Long Beach.

Boating and launching fees were often mentioned. It can cost up to $8.50 to get your boat in the water if you’re a first time visitor. The county’s annual sticker costs $5 and resorts usually charge $3 for a launch. “The only thing that matters to the people up here is money,” said Bill Vaughn of Fremont, who had two nice silver salmon on a stringer near the Berryessa Marina. He said he only went there in winter. His companion, Henry Reager of Newark, said he wasn’t sure if the proposed federal takeover would help. “I’d like the specifics of what they’ve got in mind, first.”

H. D. Lalonde of Napa, who had just landed a four-pound rainbow at The Fill said: “Absolutely not! If we’re going to turn everything over to Uncle Sam we’re in trouble.” But like many of the others he felt there should be public boat ramps outside the resorts.

The Park Service’s report maintained, and the complaints bear it out, that the resorts have not provided enough facilities for day use, such as picnic areas, and for transient use by overnight campers. This was all supposed to be part of the deal, according to the lease arrangement.

They have given over more and more space to the lucrative “mobile home” developments and the county has apparently gone along. The trouble has been that mobile homes have tended to become semi-permanent second homes on plots of federal lakefront, with private docks.

The operators defend the practice:

“Many people take the position that they are entitled to use the lake in this way (mobile homes) rather than to camp, so long as their use is proportionately representative of the total public use required to be served by this regional facility. “Economic experience with mobile homes assures certain revenues which help overcome operating losses inherent in such seasonally oriented businesses…,” one of their written statements says”

The biggest part of the difficulty, the operators and the county maintain, is that the resorts have been laboring under a 90-day termination clause in their leases which makes it impossible to borrow money for improvements. If this was removed - and they’ve been trying to have it stricken for some years - they would be able to “develop to ultimate standards” inside their own areas and provide the kind of facilities the public wants.

This would supposedly mean an increase in the return to the county from the three percent possessory interest tax which the operators pay on their gross. The county then would supposedly have the wherewithal for better facilities outside the resorts.

Don McFarland, manager of Steele Park Resort and member of the County Planning Commission, said that in the spring of 1970 the owners had expected to get a new contract in which the 90-day clause would be thrown out, but it fell through. Then the Bureau of Reclamation slapped the moratorium on the area and all bets were off until the Park Service plan was finished. Meanwhile the county worked up its own plan, issued in June, which called for more of the same with the 90-day clause out.

When the Park Service dropped its bombshell, the county still continued to stand behind the operators, claiming the “private enterprise” can provide the needed improvements if given a chance. The county boasts the “not a nickel of outside tax money” has ever gone into Berryessa. The county ran things on $165,000 last year from possessory interet taxes and boat stickers.

Why does the county want to continue to run Berryessa when it’s turned into such a headache?

“Some counties would say, ‘Let the U.S. Government do it’ Haberger says, “But that’s the erosion of local government and we don’t want ours eroded. “No gimmicks and no payoffs…we just think we’re the ones to be in charge.” “It’s a lousy plan. It’s ridiculous.” He says of the Park Service’s report.

He and the operators tale particular aim at the “optimum use” figure of nine million persons annually which the plan projects. About 1.8 million people use the lake now, and they believe that’s about where it should be kept.

Tent camping is not one of the uses Berryessa lends itself to - at least in summer when the temperatures are hot. Haberger maintains that the main attraction is Berryessa’s superiority as a boating lake, something the Park Service plan fails to recognize.

He also objects strongly to the suggestion that the lake is polluted. The county hired a sanitarian for $5,000 to make a comprehensive study which showed that it wasn’t. Most of the users and the fish agree with him, although most of the resorts use a rather primitive ponding system for sewage which depends on evaporation.

County Planning Director, Jim Hickey, former planning chief for the Association of Bay Area Governments said:

“The idea that Napa County is tearing up Lake Berryessa is false. The Bureau of Reclamation knows what’s been going on and everything that’s been done has the BOR signature on it. “Some are saying that we’re incompetent because we are local and can’t see the regional significance of the area. But we’re not stupid…if we had the money we’d do it, but we haven’t got dollar one and won’t have until the 90-day clause is dropped.”

So the county finds itself in the position of fighting to keep control of a lake whose creation it also fought because it meant the loss of prime agricultural land. Much of the trouble at Lake Berryessa can be traced to a time in 1967 when the Park Service, doing its original study for the Bureau of Reclamation, came to the conclusion that because of the steep sides of the lake and the large annual drawdown, the lake had no significant national recreation significance and recommended that a regional or state agency take over. The Park Service is saying now that it was wrong, and should have done the job itself.

Oakland Trib 1971


Will History Repeat Itself In Reverse? What Happened in 1975?

The early 1970s brought much controversy over the management of Lake Berryessa. Napa County was in conflict with the Bureau of Reclamation over how best to provide public recreation at the lake. A moratorium was placed on all construction and development in the concession areas, including remedial construction activities, by Reclamation in 1970. A Board of Supervisors Resolution, No. 71-133, Nov. 1971, refused to continue to allow the Reclamation imposed  “moratorium” and resolved to allow construction activities of a remedial nature at Lake Berryessa.

Congressman Don Clausen, responsive to his constituents, visited the lake  in 1972. He worked extensively with all parties involved. In mid 1973 there was a Lake Berryessa Conference called by Cong. Clausen. He analyzed the National Recreation Area Proposal which would acquire the concessions and burden taxpayers with $25 - $40 million. He concluded that it did not provide a solution and that an expanded, up-dated and restructured cooperative management agreement between the Federal government and Napa County would be the best and most realistic way to resolve the Berryessa question.

He attributed the failures to develop and manage day-use recreation facilities and activities to:

1. Failure of the Federal government to recognize the potential for public recreation when the Lake Berryessa -Solano Project was conceived and constructed.

2. Failure of the Federal government to provide for the development and management of day-use recreation facilities even when its potential was recognized.

3. Inability of the State of California to finance or cooperate in financing recreational resources at the Lake.

He then stated, “Private enterprise, working in concert with government, can do anything better than government alone can --- the only problem is, it was never really given a fair chance to work at Lake Berryessa!”  He recognized that funds were necessary to develop the day use capital improvements, and vowed to pursue Federal funds. He felt that the public use plan developed by the National Park Service was an excellent guide in developing a comprehensive day-use recreation plan for the Lake.

The Conference led Congress Clausen to introduce H.R Bill 11758, December 1973. The purpose of the Bill was to authorize the Federal government to direct the development, operation and maintenance of day-use facilities. It further authorized the Federal government to create rules and regulations for the administration of the lands and waters at Lake Berryessa, and to enter into agreements for the operation and maintenance of recreational use facilities in the area. It  authorized funds to be appropriated which were necessary to carry out the provisions of the Act.

Supportive of HR Bill 11758, the Napa County Board of Supervisors passed a Resolution. The County considered the bill a solution which would provide for the establishment of much needed day use public recreational facilities at Lake Berryessa by receiving funding to provide recreational uses, while proposing reasonable solutions for the management at Lake Berryessa.

But after fruitless years of discussion and debate regarding the management agreement, in 1974 Napa County withdrew as the management agency of Lake Berryessa through Resolution 74-444, April 1974:

“WHEREAS, since the inception of said recreation managerial effort by the County of Napa, the recreational public has been served through the development of seven separate concession complexes individually managed by private enterprise concessionaires under agreement with the County, as approved by the Bureau of Reclamation, and the volume of recreational uses by the general public has expanded to the extent that presently Lake Berryessa is providing more than two million recreational user-days per year; and

WHEREAS, the County of Napa has, during recent years, sought to negotiate certain amendments to the said management agreement with the Bureau of Reclamation for the purpose or providing the resort concessionaires at Lake Berryessa with the contractual interest that would permit their more readily obtaining commercial financing with which to accomplish desirable expansion and capital improvements within their respective concession areas; however, such efforts of County have thus far been fruitless; and …

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED by the Board of Supervisors of the County of Napa, State of California, that it does herewith and hereby determine that the County of Napa shall relinquish and terminate its managerial functions and activities under that certain Agreement entitled “Management Agreement with Napa County for Lake Berryessa Area” and dated January 17, 1962, between the County of Napa and the United States of America, Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation, said relinquishment and termination to be accomplished at a date convenient to said Bureau of Reclamation but not later than June 30, 1975.”



Notice of Intent: Solano Project--Lake Berryessa; Napa, California

[Federal Register: November 7, 2000 (Volume 65, Number 216)]


From the Federal Register Online via GPO Access []

[DOCID:fr07no00-97] [Page 66763-66764]



Bureau of Reclamation

Solano Project--Lake Berryessa; Napa, California

AGENCY: Bureau of Reclamation, Interior.

ACTION: Notice of intent to prepare an environmental impact statement.


SUMMARY: Pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969, as amended, the Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) is initiating a formal Visitor Services Planning effort for the Lake Berryessa Recreation Area. Reclamation intends to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) for implementing the provisions of the plan. The purpose of the Visitor Services Plan is to determine the type and level of commercial facilities and services that are necessary and appropriate for future long term operations. The current concession contracts expire in 2009 and the Visitor Services Plan will be used as a basis for future concession prospectuses.

DATES: Formal public scoping meetings are scheduled for May 2001. Notice of the specific dates and locations of the meetings will appear at a future date.

ADDRESSES: Mail comments on the existing facilities, possible issues and alternatives and requests to participate in public scoping meetings to Mr. Bruce Wadlington at the address below. You may also submit requests and comments by sending electronic mail (e-mail) to:

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Mr. Bruce Wadlington, Mid-Pacific Regional Concessions Manager, Central California Area Office, Bureau of Reclamation, 7794 Folsom Dam Road, Folsom, CA 95630; telephone: Folsom(916) 989-7175, Berryessa (707) 966-2111 ext. 108 (TDD (916) 989-7285).



Lake Berryessa was created as part of the Solano Project with the completion of Monticello Dam in 1957. In 1958, Reclamation and the County of Napa entered into an agreement for the County to assume management responsibilities for the lake. A Public Use Plan (PUP) was developed by the National Park Service in 1959 to guide Reclamation and the County in development of the recreational facilities at the lake. In 1975, Reclamation resumed direct management of Lake Berryessa as a result of Title VI of the Reclamation Development Act of October 27, 1974 (Public Law 93-493), which authorizes Reclamation to provide for the protection, use, and enjoyment of the aesthetic and recreational values at Lake Berryessa. In 1987 a new planning process began to develop an updated management document for the lake. A Reservoir Area Management Plan (RAMP) was developed to provide guidance for Reclamation in management issues which were not mentioned in the PUP and to assist Reclamation in administering the lake and concession areas. Reclamation completed a final EIS for the RAMP in 1993.

Presently there are seven (7) concessionaires authorized by Reclamation to provide commercial support services to visitors to Lake Berryessa. These concession contracts have been in effect since the late 1950's. All the contracts will expire by 2009. Reclamation also administers two day-use areas and a public launching facility, as well as numerous roadside turnouts and trails. The eastside of the lake has been designated a State Wildlife Area and is managed cooperatively by Reclamation and the California Department of Fish and Game.

Visitor Services Plan

The Visitor Services Plan will identify and develop the requirements, terms, and conditions for new competitive concession contracts that will be developed by the Federal Government. Some of the issues to be addressed in the plan include day-use needs, long-term and short-term recreational vehicle and trailer sites, campground

development, marina development, consolidation or expansion of operations, new services development and construction, retention or removal of existing facilities, food and beverage service needs, overnight lodging facilities, and support for marine based activities, i.e., fishing (individual and tournament), swimming, water skiing, etc.

Public Involvement and Planning Schedule

The time frame for completion of this plan is 18 to 24 months. Formal Public Scoping meetings are scheduled to be held in May 2001. The draft EIS is expected to be completed by November 2001. The final EIS is scheduled to be released in March 2002.

Anyone interested in more information concerning the plan, or who has an interest in the future development of Lake Berryessa as related to this planning effort or has suggestions as to significant environmental issues, should contact Mr. Bruce Wadlington as provided above.                       © Peter Kilkus 2020