Warnings About Oroville Dam Ignored 12 Years Ago

Oroville Dam 2SACRAMENTO – A Sacramento Bee story published Monday succinctly described the disaster unfolding at the nation’s tallest dam, where flaws in the Oroville Dam’s concrete spillway are forcing water onto the earthen emergency spillway. Threats of a spillway collapse led to mandatory evacuations throughout Butte, Yuba and Sutter counties Sunday.

“Oroville Dam contains a flaw, some critics assert, one that could damage the structure during a major flood and threaten downstream communities,” according to the Bee. “That flaw is the dam’s emergency spillway, which empties onto a bare dirt hillside adjacent to the earthen-fill dam.” The torrent of water could erode the unprotected hillside, undermine the emergency spillway’s foundation and lead to a catastrophic failure.

The amazing thing is that the news report was first published Nov. 27, 2005. The Bee’s Monday publication was a reprint, given the relevance of the report nearly a dozen years later. It provides necessary context after another news organization revealed that three environmental groups at the time had urged state and federal officials to line the emergency spillway with concrete to avoid the kind of problems on display this week.

A dozen years ago, the dam was going through a 50-year relicensing process with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The Friends of the River, the Sierra Club and the South Yuba Citizens League argued in their filings that the 1960s-era dam “did not meet modern safety standards because in the event of extreme rain and flooding, fast-rising water would overwhelm the main concrete spillway” and threaten flooding in communities down river, according to the Mercury News, which broke the story this week.

State and federal officials brushed off the suggestion at the time, arguing that the likelihood of such an event was slim and that it would be too costly to complete those improvements. The dam received its relicensing and the matter faded away. State water officials have been consumed more by drought issues than flood possibilities in the ensuing dozen years. But given the accuracy of the environmental groups’ predictions, it’s worth taking a deeper look at what happened.

At a news conference near Lake Oroville Monday, “the state’s top water officials brushed aside questions” about that old report and didn’t address assurances from a top state water official in 2005 that “(o)ur facilities, including the spillway, are safe during any conceivable flood event,” according to the latest Bee report.

The news story revealed another troubling piece of the puzzle: Congress had authorized the construction of a smaller dam on the Yuba River near Marysville, which is down river from Oroville. The Oroville Dam’s operating plan was predicated, in part, on the construction of this other dam, which would take pressure off the larger facility. But it was never built. In the view of critics, this serves as a touchstone for much that is wrong with California’s water policy.

Former Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, a Republican from San Bernardino County, criticized Gov. Jerry Brown for spending so much time defying the new Trump administration “that it forgot to do the things government is supposed to do, like maintain infrastructure.” The seven years of drought that preceded this rainy season, he added, would have been an ideal time to fix decrepit levees and dams but the Brown administration was more focused on building a $68-billion high-speed rail line, dealing with immigration issues and boosting public-employee compensation.

That’s a harsh assessment, but there’s much evidence to support the theory of ongoing state neglect. There are available water-bond funds, yet the state government has been lackadaisical at best about spending them. Many of its priorities are about environmental restoration rather than dam protection and there’s been little appetite in the Capitol to build new storage facilities.

Indeed, the governor has been more focused on removing dams on the Klamath River near the Oregon border than on shoring up the linchpin of the State Water Project – the system of levees and dams that directs water from the Sacramento Valley southward.

The Brown administration, which had vowed to fight against Donald Trump on his climate, immigration and other policies, nevertheless asked the president Friday to declare parts of California a disaster area, thus opening up a floodgate of federal aid. But there are other federal policies that the Trump administration could consider that would help protect residents living within the shadow of Oroville and other California dams.

For instance, current mortgage rules regarding flood insurance discourage people who live in the shadow of large dams from purchasing flood insurance policies. Federal lending rules require such insurance for owners of property in flood plains, but flood-protection systems such as dams and levees usually remove the floodplain designation from those areas. Without pressure from mortgage companies, owners typically avoid the insurance, figuring there’s little chance of a dam failure.

“Properties that would be designated as located within a flood plain but for a flood protection system like dams and levees – residual risk areas – should be subject to the mandatory purchase requirement,” argues the SmarterSafer Coalition, which includes the R Street Institute, in a recent study analyzing the federal flood insurance program. Those areas would, of course, have rates that “clearly reflect the decreased risk the properties face as a result of the dam or levee.”

Such an insurance system wouldn’t ensure that state and federal authorities repair their dams and levees in a timely manner, but it would offer a level of economic protection for people who are now sitting in motel rooms, watching the news and wondering whether they’ll have anything left if the Oroville Dam spillway gives way. Furthermore, it would protect taxpayers, who typically pay for the aid after a natural disaster strikes.

For now, watching and waiting is all that most Northern California residents can do. Once the crisis passes, there will be intense pressure on the state government to make repairs to Oroville Dam and others across the state. But news reports make clear that state officials were warned about the very problems now unfolding.

Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at sgreenhut@rstreet.org.

This piece was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Race Against Rain: Oroville Dam Must Drain 50 Feet by Wednesday

Oroville DamOfficials are releasing water from the Oroville Dam, the nation’s highest, at the astonishing rate of 100,000 cubic feet per second, with the goal of lowering the lake’s elevation by 50 feet before a week of rain and snow hits the region Wednesday.

At a press conference Sunday night, law enforcement and California Department of Water Resources officials announced that they had released enough water to stop flow over the emergency spillway, reducing the risk of erosion and structural collapse. The lake dropped below its maximum height of 901 feet above sea level, and was continuing to subside, officials reported.

However, water was continuing to flow into the lake behind the dam at a rate of 40,000 cubic feet per second, the result of runoff and snow melt from weeks of heavy precipitation after five years of drought. As a result, the dam would need to be drained as quickly as possible over the next 72 hours. The maximum release rate is about 150,000 cubic feet per second, though officials are reluctant to release water down the main spillway at that rate because of the risk of structural damage.

Already, the main concrete spillway has developed a large hole, which officials estimate will cost $100 to $200 million to fix. The adjacent emergency spillway, which drains onto an unpaved hillside of soil, rocks and trees, has also developed a hole  that could result in structural failure and that officials may have to plug by dropping rocks from helicopters. If the emergency spillway does collapse, it could lose 30 feet in height, releasing a wall of water into the Feather River below, which drains into the Sacramento River. That poses a severe risk to communities below the dam, including the state capital of Sacramento.

Officials issued an emergency evacuation order Sunday afternoon, warning that the emergency spillway was expected to collapse within an hour. That led to massive traffic jams as residents drove northward towards Chico. Though the spillway remains intact for now, nearly 200,000 residents from Oroville and surrounding communities remain under evacuation.

California Gov. Jerry Brown issued an emergency order Sunday evening and indicated that the state was managing the relief effort.

Officials also said they were cooperating with the federal government. Separately, Gov. Brown had asked President Donald Trump for federal emergency relief funds to address damage to the state done by storms earlier this year.

Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He was named one of the “most influential” people in news media in 2016. His new book, How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.

This piece was originally published by Breitbart.com/California

Emergency release of water from Oroville Dam escalates

As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle:

As water Thursday night rose toward the brim of the reservoir behind the damaged spillway of Oroville Dam, state officials braced for the unprecedented: having to open the emergency outlet of the tallest dam in the United States, which could have untold ecological consequences.

The trouble started Tuesday in the midst of relentless rainstorms, as a section of the concrete spillway that later grew to more than 200 feet wide and 30 feet deep collapsed, frothing the Feather River below like chocolate syrup, so thick with mud and debris that those toiling to save millions of salmon at the hatchery below could hardly see two inches beneath the surface.

Officials stopped releases to inspect the problem but runoff kept the reservoir rising. On Thursday morning, officials increased the flow. The fissure ballooned outward, sending coffee-colored water gushing down the adjacent hillside. …

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