The Monticello Dam Controversy and “Lake” Berryessa

Mirroring the fate of the Patwin Indians and Mexican settlers who preceded them, Monticello’s residents would find themselves displaced by forces greater than themselves. The U.S. Government had been eyeing the valley for years as a site for a dam on Putah Creek to prevent flooding downstream and to provide a reservoir of water for agricultural, urban, industrial, military, and recreational uses. Residents of Monticello tried desperately to reverse the “Solano Project,” but to no avail9.

Devil's Gate, 1955, Eastman's Originals Collection, Department of Special Collections, General Library, University of California, DavisIn Death of a Valley16, Dorothea Lange and Pirkle Jones documented the destruction of Monticello; and three decades later, Berryessa Valley: The Last Year12 was compiled to accompany an exhibit at the Vacaville Museum. Both photo-text compilations provide moving visual accounts of the final year at Monticello. After valiant attempts to thwart the plans of the government dam-builders, Monticello residents at last had to accept the fate of their town: they abandoned their homes, hiring African-American laborers from San Francisco to move the town cemetery to higher ground at Spanish Flats. “The big oaks were cut down. Cattle had rested in their shade for generations. On old maps and deeds they had served as landmarks”16. Anything taller than five feet and wider than two inches was removed. Houses and fences were moved or burnt. Ranch and farm equipment was auctioned, and the fertile, historic valley was leveled to dust, burnt to ashes, and filled with water.
Monticello Dam Construction, 1956, Courtesy of Solano Irrigation District
By 1957, construction of Monticello Dam at Devil’s Gate, the narrow point of the Putah Creek Canyon, was completed. By 1963 1.6 million acre-feet of water had flooded the valley, creating the second largest human-made water body in California (after Shasta Reservoir), with 165 miles of shoreline (Lake Berryessa at Thus, Quail Ridge emerged as a peninsula on the southern shore of this new 26 x 3 mile reservoir. Water now passes in regulated flows through the dam into what is left of Putah Creek.

The reservoir and dam generate electricity via the three hydroelectric units of the Monticello Hydroelectric Power Plant, built from 1981-1983 and financed by a local bond. The plant is owned and operated by the Solano Irrigation District, and the electricity is transmitted to Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s power grid.

Monticello Dam, NRS ArchivesToday the reservoir ensures the supply of water for Travis Air Force Base and the major towns of Solano County, and it is a favorite venue for water sports enthusiasts. Seven resorts are run by concessionaires under contract with the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) and cater to anglers, campers, water skiers, and jet boaters. The Markley Cove and Pleasure Cove resorts sit at the east and west inlets on either side of the Quail Ridge peninsula, respectively. Nearly 1,500 trailers dot the shoreline of the reservoir on sites rented on a monthly basis from concessionaires. Shoreline properties – those within 40 vertical feet of the maximum fill waterline – have been allocated on 50-year leases, which expire in 2008/2009. In 2003, the BOR drafted a Visitor Services Plan to evaluate uses and needs for this land; concessionaires, residents, recreational visitors, and land trust organizations such as Quail Ridge Wilderness Conservancy all are closely following the progress of the BOR’s plan.

Glory Hole spilling, 2005, Photo by Shane WaddellResidential and commercial development has been limited in the area, although there has been a certain amount of land speculation. Most notably, some of the parcels now comprising part of Quail Ridge Natural Reserve were sold in the 1970s to unfortunate Europeans under the guise of the “Swiss Alps of California” (L. Timm, pers. comm.). Bit by bit Quail Ridge Wilderness Conservancy, the California Department of Fish and Game, and recently the University of California, have been acquiring parcels on the peninsula, thereby extending and fortifying the boundaries of Quail Ridge Reserve.

Spillway at a low lake level, NRS Archives
The UC Davis library holds a number of documents and photographs of Monticello and the building of the dam; many of these are available online (, search ‘Monticello California’).




This page last updated: July 5, 2005  

Contact: Dr. Virginia Boucher
John Muir Institute of the Environment
109 The Barn, University of California, Davis, CA 95616
Phone: 530-752-6949; email:

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