Lake Berryessa, Terra Firma’s primary source of irrigation water, is filling fast right now. It has passed the highest level it reached last year, 430 feet above sea level — and is now headed for another milestone. Once the water level hits 440 feet, it begins to automatically spill out of the lake, through a giant concrete tower called “The Glory Hole”. At this time, the water is just shy of 335 feet, or 5 feet below the edge of the spillway.

Although it is the 7th largest reservoir in the state at 1.6 million acre feet (when full), it is less than half the size of Shasta and almost exactly half the size of Oroville. But those reservoirs — and most of the other top ten in California — service many areas of the state. Their water ends up as far away as Los Angeles and Orange County. Lake Berryessa is a regional reservoir, serving only Solano and Napa Counties.

This puts the area served by the reservoir in an enviable position of water sustainability: since its creation in 1970, water deliveries have never been restricted. Even after a court required that the dam managers to release additional water to accommodate the non-native salmon population that developed in the creek below the dam after its construction, there has always been plenty of water for agriculture and the cities that depend on it.

It helps tremendously that both the reservoir’s watershed and the area that the water is used to irrigate have relatively high annual rainfall averages. That means that in wet years like last year (and likely this year), not only does the dam fill quickly, but the farmers use less water. Contrast this to a reservoir like Shasta, which supplies areas in the San Joaquin Valley and southern CA that don’t get much rain even in wet years. Here, we are able to save more of our water for when the inevitable dry years come.

But having a relative abundance of water compared to other areas of the state has put a target on our backs. During the drought of the early oughts, hedge funds and public investment entities identified Solano County agriculture as “under-utilizing” its water supply. Over 5 years, they bought up thousands of acres of farmland to plant almond orchards on land that had previously been irrigated far less intensely. Eventually, the water district made the controversial decision to limit deliveries based on historical water use in order to protect the water supply for the future.

The recent acquisition of thousands of acres of land in Solano County by technology investors for building a new city is also likely motivated by water availability here. There is essentially no groundwater in the area purchased by the Flannery Group, and their plans hinge on bringing in water from Lake Berryessa.

Now, the state itself has targeted Lake Berryessa’s water. The State Water Board, an unelected agency with virtually no accountability, has informed the Solano Water Agency that it is considering “taking” 900,000 acre feet of the water in the reservoir. That is more than half the water when the dam is full. During multi-year droughts, it would be all the water.

As an alternative to this option, the Water Board is suggesting that the SWA enter into voluntary agreements with the state to provide water “when needed” to preserve flows in the Sacramento River.

The Water Board claim that it can take half of the water in Berryessa is legally questionable. The problem is that despite our relative abundance of water, Solano County has a small population and a small water district with a tiny annual budget. We don’t have the financial resources to spend years in court with the state and its essentially unlimited legal budget. The Water Board knows this very well. They are essentially extorting water from us, the schoolyard bully giving us a choice of “You can give me your lunch, or I will beat you up and take it”.

It’s almost as if the staff at the State Water Board all watched “Chinatown”, the classic movie about how Los Angeles took all the water from the Owens Valley, and then looked around for another area where they could do the same thing again. And apparently they have taken the same tact with other small water districts, including the one in Yolo County.

It is true that right now, Solano County has a surplus of water in Lake Berryessa. In fact, there is a very good possibility that the next time we get a heavy rain, the reservoir will spill over and any extra water we get will flow automatically down Putah Creek and into the Sacramento River. If and when that happens, a group of local residents will be there to watch, cheering and raising a toast.

But it’s instructive to remember that the last time that Glory Hole spilled over was in 2019, just a few months before the start of a 4 year drought. And by the end of that drought, the lake was at its lowest level since 1991 — just over a million acre feet.

If that happens again and the State Water Board has its way, almost all that water will be theirs, leaving nothing for the farms and cities of Solano County. The tale of David and Goliath, but this time, Goliath wins.

This story is just getting started and I will keep you up to date. The history of Solano County and Lake Berryessa is one of success and sustainability, and we will fight to keep it that way.