Lake Berryessa, a 30-square-mile federal reservoir in the hills northeast of the more famous Napa Valley, may be California’s most secret lake. But a new land use and management plan could change that by promoting a more high-end tourist activity than the lake has seen in the past.

In fact, the very nature of the Lake Berryessa experience appears to be changing. The Lake Berryessa Visitor Services Plan adopted earlier this year by the Bureau of Reclamation calls for removal of about 1,100 mobile homes and recreational vehicles that are parked in seven “resorts” on federal land along the lakeshore, and erasure of many improvements built by the resort owners. In place of the trailer parks, the Bureau of Reclamation hopes to have private concessionaires develop facilities for short-term visitors, such as rental cabins, camping sites and possibly motels and other tourist facilities.

The bureau’s record of decision “allows for the hospitality industry to suggest to us, based on their experience, what would work best in the concession areas,” said Pete Lucero, chief of recreation for the bureau’s Central California area office. The goal of the plan is to boost short-term visitor use of the 49-year-old lake, which now gets about 1.2 million visitors annually.

“We expect to see a greater degree of recreational opportunities. We’re looking at a wholesale improvement for the general public,” said Lucero. “I believe that as more of the Bay Area population finds Berryessa to be a destination spot for more traditional activities, it (visitor use) will increase. And if it’s not an increase, it will be a more varied visitor population, rather than the same people returning every weekend.”

However, the weekend regulars who own mobile homes, prefab houses, travel trailers and recreational vehicles in the resorts fought the new strategy throughout the administrative process. Their residences sit on federal property that is leased to contractors who have agreements with the federal government. Those seven contracts expire from 2007 through 2009. Under the approved visitor services plan, the owners must remove their residences from federal land at their own expense when the contracts expire, and the contractors must remove facilities and improvements that do not go along with new contracts.

According to Hank Howard, head of the group Berryessa For All, about 200 people who live in the resorts full-time will lose their homes, and hundreds of other families who have been coming to the lake for decades are being kicked out. The group, which Howard says has about 750 members, is considering filing a lawsuit over the record of decision.

“We think the document is highly flawed,” said Howard, who owns a manufactured home at the lake. The Bureau of Reclamation decision is arbitrary and capricious, and the agency is illegally taking private property, Howard charged.

“One hundred percent of everything that exists in the seven resorts was permitted, inspected, reviewed and master planned by Napa County and the Bureau of Land Management,” Howard said.

The vast majority of mobile homes at Berryessa are too old to be moved into other parks, so the bureau’s plan makes them less than worthless. Removal of the old units will cost upwards of $20,000 to $25,000 apiece, said Denise Trevor, a mobile home owner and Berryessa For All organizer. “We can’t just move these places,” she said.

After six years of planning, environmental review and sometimes tense public meetings, federal officials have little patience for these arguments. A 2002 evaluation prepared for the bureau by Kleinfelder, Inc., found that infrastructure in the resorts, including water and wastewater systems, is in poor shape and needs extensive upgrades or replacement. Napa County officials agreed with the assessment. In a 2005 letter to the bureau, County Executive Officer Nancy Watt said the county “has recorded a history of assorted non-compliance issues, notice of violations, capacity failures, insufficient maintenance, missing or late inspection reporting and illegal discharges associated with a number of water and wastewater treatment facilities serving the concession areas at Lake Berryessa.”

Many of the residences are not in any better shape than the infrastructure. Even Howard conceded there are as many as 400 “trailers that need to go.” Still, he said, it is unfair to lump together everyone as “exclusive long-term users” that are blighting the lake.

Most of the trailers and mobile homes were moved onto the lakeshore during the 1960s and 1970s, and their precise administrative history is murky, although it may not matter much because there is no question they are located on federal land for which leases are about to expire. Napa County Conservation, Development and Planning Director Hilary Gitelman said the county has done no planning for the area because “it’s federal lands in federal jurisdiction.”

“The main thing that the county has been concerned about all along is that the county spends a lot of resources out at the lake,” Gitelman said. The county estimates it spends $700,000 a year providing emergency services, health and safety services, and public works to the area.

Supervisors in both Napa and Solano counties ended up endorsing the visitor services plan but there was some hesitation because of the housing unit removal. A number of trail advocacy, environmental and mountain bike groups also backed the project, saying it would encourage more use of the lake and surrounding federal lands while also increasing environmental sensitivity. And in her letter to the bureau, Napa County’s Watt wrote, “With Reclamation’s help, Lake Berryessa will become an asset for the citizens for Napa County for generations to come, rather than the liability that is has been for too long.”

But that sounds like a harsh assessment to people like Trevor and Howard, who have been coming to their second homes on the lake for many years.

“They paint the picture that there are trailers around the whole lake, which is ridiculous,” Howard said. The residences cover only about 4% of the shoreline, he said. “The problem with this whole thing is that at no time has any short-term user ever been turned away from the facility.”

The bureau’s Lucero said officials are currently working on a prospectus for potential concessionaires. There is no strict timeline for the project because planned improvements are dependent on federal funding and the willingness of private investors, he said.

Pete Lucero, Bureau of Reclamation, (707) 966-2111.
Hilary Gitelman, Napa County Department of Conservation, Development and Planning, (707) 253-4805.
Hank Howard, Berryessa For All, (707) 645-8367.
Visitor Services Plan website: