Napa County’s hidden destination: Will Lake Berryessa’s future shine again?
Stefano Gusberti, chef and owner of Cucina Italiana at Lake Berryessa since 2004, remembers the lake’s better times. Motels, cabins, several restaurants, marinas with boat slips and other amenities dotted the 28-mile long, three-mile wide lake in Napa County.
“We once saw 1.8 to 2 million visitors a year, today only about 400,000. I had eight employees years ago, now it’s just me making pepperoni pizza and lumpia (Italian spring rolls). Demand is high. Some of our pizza orders range from 3 or 4 up to as many as 15 pies for carryout or outdoor patio dining.”
Even though the summers remain busy — busier still as people facing pandemic times seek its 80-degree, crystal clear water and numerous islands to explore — some say there is potential for this gem of a lake to return its glory days.
In June, Napa County and the lake’s owner, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, signed a new 55-year managing partner agreement (MPA) expected to lead to long-term business contracts for new concessions on federally-owned land within 1,000 feet from the lake. Napa County will issue bid packages to potential investors this fall.
The agreement’s first phase paves the way for the county to choose developers for three lakeside resort sites — Monticello Shores (closed) Spanish Flat (open under interim contract) and the Steele Canyon recreation area (open for day use with tent/RV campsites and boat ramp).
Under phase 2, by or before Nov. 1, 2030, the county will determine whether to take over recreation management responsibility for two other sites — Pleasure Cove and Markley Cove currently under lease agreements. In phase 3, the county may elect to assume recreation management responsibility for Berryessa Point and Putah Canyon.
“This is a huge achievement for all of us. We’re looking forward to building the partnership with Napa County and working together to deliver a thriving recreation program at Lake Berryessa for the public,” said California-Great Basin Regional Director Ernest Conant in a bureau press release.
“Now that the agreement is final, we are moving forward with the county process,” said Molly Rattigan, deputy Napa executive officer who has been managing Napa County–bureau agreement negotiations for several years. “We plan to send out bidding packages by September. We maintain a list of interested parties and will provide information and updates about these emerging business opportunities to all.”
Rattigan said Napa County is also preparing to recruit a concessions manager for these projects.
“It has been too long since we experienced a thriving Lake Berryessa,” said Supervisor Diane Dillion, chair of the Napa County Board of Supervisors. ”We want to work with the community to restore economic vitality to the region surrounding one of Napa County’s most important recreational areas. We thank the Bureau of Reclamation for working with us and for providing the county the opportunity to bring back vibrant concessions at Lake Berryessa.”
Supervisor Dillion represents District 3 that includes the northern section of the lake and Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza represents District 4 that covers the southern portion of Berryessa.
Property interest grows
Lake Berryessa was formed more than six decades ago in 1957 with construction of the Monticello Dam on Putah Creek. At the time, the Bureau of Reclamation entered into a joint agreement with Napa County to manage recreational development offering 50-year leases to bidders. However, by 1975 the county notified the bureau of its intent to return lake recreation management back to the bureau.
The new agreement is already spurring renewed interest in the area.
“Today property is being purchased at the lake with the intent to develop it when the time is right for a revival in concession planning activity,” said Stu Williams, a former member of the Lake Berryessa Chamber board and a past member of the Napa Berryessa Resort Improvement District (for water and sewer).
The new agreement isn’t a clean break from the bureau deciding lease holder terms. For example, USBR is soliciting bids through an open competition described in a prospectus published June 16 — with offers due no later than Aug. 10 at 4 p.m. — for services including day use, boat launch and camping facilities at Putah Canyon Recreation Area on Lake Berryessa for a period not to exceed 10 years, according to Warren Kasper, bureau California-Great Basin regional director. This project is not part of the new Napa County–bureau agreement.
Bidding information for Putah Canyon can be found on the Bureau of Reclamation website.