While the budget deadlock ended a month ago, federal officials say there is still not enough money to reopen recreation facilities at Lake Sonoma, which draws hundreds of thousands of visitors annually to fish, boat and camp in the hills west of Healdsburg.
Community supporters are searching for private funding to reopen the visitors center, campgrounds, bathrooms and several parking lots at the 2,700-acre reservoir operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
It will take at least $5,000 a month to reopen the shuttered facilities, said Harry Bosworth, president of the Friends of Lake Sonoma, a nonprofit support group.
"The biggest headache will be the visitors center, paying for the electricity," Bosworth said. "We're looking at ways to reduce that."
The lake remains open for fishing, boating and some day uses. But more than 200 campsites and five group day-use sites, along with several parking lots and trailheads, will remain closed until sufficient funding is allocated, said Lt. Col. John K. Baker, the Corps' district director in San Francisco.
All public facilities at Lake Sonoma and Lake Mendocino, both operated by the Army Corps of Engineers, were shut down for 16 days in October by the federal budget impasse. The Corps had hoped to resume normal operations, but the resolution that ended the budget dispute sliced about $1.2 million from the agency's local budget.
That shortfall, on top of previous budget cuts that had already reduced staff, left the Corps with a difficult choice, said Senior District Ranger Charles Fenwick: reopen the recreation facilities or maintain the Don Clausen Fish Hatchery at the base of Warm Springs Dam.
In this case, the fish won.
The hatchery is home to the last surviving breeding population of a variety of Coho Salmon that once spawned in the Russian River and its tributaries. Shutting down that hatchery even for a brief period could kill the remaining fish.
"The hatchery is like a light-switch," Fenwick said. "It's either on or it's off."
As a result, the Corps cut nearly all spending on recreation facilities, shutting down restrooms and campgrounds. At Lake Sonoma, closed areas include the Milt Brandt Visitor Center and the Overlook and Skaggs Springs Vista parking lots and trailheads. Public visits to the fish hatchery have been suspended as well.
At Lake Mendocino northeast of Ukiah, areas closed include Bushay campgrounds and day-use areas, Kyen campgrounds, CheKaKa campground, Pomo A, B and C day-use areas, Pomo Cultural Center, the Overlook, and Joe Riley day-use area.
The boat ramps at Lake Sonoma remain open and boaters are free to use the lake. The ramps at Lake Mendocino are closed, but that is because the water level is too low to operate them.
Other day-use areas, such as picnic grounds and trails, remain open, but there are no restrooms and support activities such as trash collection have been cut drastically.
It's not clear when or if the money will ever be restored, Fenwick said. The Corps will ask for full funding in the new budget, but Congress will decide how much money is allocated.
The resolution that ended the October government shutdown funds federal operations through Jan. 15.
Even if Friends of Lake Sonoma succeeds in raising extra money, the fate of the facilities at Lake Mendocino is unclear. There is a small friends organization at that lake, Fenwick said, but it is relatively new and has a much smaller budget and volunteer base than the Lake Sonoma organization.
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