Infrastructure

Oroville Dam Threatens Valley After Warnings Ignored Long Ago

Government failed to pay attention to concerns brought up more than a decade ago.

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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 last Sunday, although residents have since been allowed to return home.

"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 (D) 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 as more rains are predicted. 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 that have been unfolding.

This article first appeared in Calwatchdog.

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  1. 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.

    The problem the watermelons face is a classic case of the boy who cried wolf. There are real environmental hazards out there, but these organizations spend the majority of their time focusing on symbolic gestures. e.g. Protesting a few miles of pipeline when there are already 2.5 million miles of pipeline in the US.

    1. Sure, if someone claims every situation is the end of the world as we know it then people won’t pay attention to them, even when they should.

    2. On the other hand, for environmental groups in California to come out in favor of building up a dam cuts against their “let the rivers flow free!” stereotype.

      1. The open question is how many other times have the environmental groups raised issues like this.
        If its rare, then shame on the State for brushing it off.
        But if the greenies are raising issues constantly, then brushing this off would have been expected. If the greenies are crying wolf constantly and their ‘analysis’ is not thorough why should the State listen.

        It is a shame that we no longer have investigative reporters that would care to look into things like this. But pissing off the greenies would be career ending.

        1. And pissing off the greenies is so easy that it’s hard to say what will do it.

    3. Protesting a few miles of pipeline when there are already 2.5 million miles of pipeline in the US.

      Well, even the Chief Racist of the Vatican (aka the Pope) says that if you look like Disney’s Pocahontas, you should be able to determine where US companies build pipelines on public land!

  2. “Government failed to pay attention to concerns brought up more than a decade ago.”

    Just “government”. No party affiliation here or anything – coulda been any old administration! Why, it was probably when REAGAN was governor that they ignored the problem!! I mean, California has had some FAMOUS republican governors, amirite?!?

    1. The report came out when Schwarzenegger was governor.

  3. George Bush had warnings about the 9/11 attackers, too. Along with about 14,000 other vague warnings about some bad shit about to go down. Everything that happens, there’s going to be somebody saying “See? I warned you this was going to happen some day!” whether it’s Katrina or possums got into the trash can because I forgot to put the bungee cord back across the lid.

    1. As someone recently replied on this site: someday it really WILL happen and then you’ll wish we had mongered harder!!

  4. The seven years of drought that preceded this rainy season … would have been an ideal time to fix decrepit levees and dams

    NONSENSE!

    There was a 97% consensus among climate scientists that California was in a permanent drought and that there would be little or no snow on the Sierra Mountains.

    Why would any responsible public servant waste public money on infrastructure for reservoirs that would never be filled again? Especially when the State of California had pressing infrastructure spending priorities like choo-choo trains, alternative energy, and transgender restrooms.

    1. cato-
      I’m sure many, many people had these exact thoughts, only they were completely serious about them.

    2. There was a 97% consensus among climate scientists that California was in a permanent drought and that there would be little or no snow on the Sierra Mountains.

      Less than two years ago.

  5. Key phrase:

    “Oroville Dam contains a flaw, some critics assert,”

    And when tested it worked as designed. Yea, it was more dramatic then expected, but it worked.

    The critics were environmentalists, who throw shit against the wall endlessly hoping it will stick.

    If the environmentalist have reports signed and sealed by professional engineers I will take them seriously. Until then they can go fuck themselves.

    1. And when tested it worked as designed. Yea, it was more dramatic then expected, but it worked.

      Not really. The waterflow eroded enormous holes in the main spillway such that they had to shut it off and allow the water to exit via the “emergency spillway” which isn’t a spillway at all, but simply a hillside on the lowest side of the lake. There is a 30′ berm there whose foundations were being undermined by the overflow and was in immediate risk of failure.

      The problem was likely most directly related to soil settlement under the spillway related to the drought, and may or may not be related to the problems raised 10 years ago.

      These are known problems with earthen dams, and many (if not most) dams in the state have been retrofitted in the last 10 years. Oroville decided not to, probably figuring it would be too expensive (biggest dam in the state) vs. the risk that the reservoir would ever overflow (huge reservoir in a traditionally fairly dry area).

    2. Didn’t work anywhere near what the design claimed it was capable of handling.

      They claimed that the emergency spillway was rated to allow 350,000 cfs of water over it safely.

      I don’t think last weekend the flow ever exceeded 10,000 cfs before it risked being undermined.

      When I first saw aerial pictures of that emergency spillway and what was below it the first day water actually flowed over it, my very first thought was ‘that water is going to flow over dirt…I wonder how long before it all washes away’
      Apparently, less than 48 hours.

  6. Seriously, somebody go interview an actual civil engineer who will allow their name to be attributed to their comments and see what kind of analysis you get. It won’t be, oh my fucking god the whole goddamn dam is going to collapse nonsense you keep seeing, lets blame it on the president I dislike most!@#O@4u90238h.

    Everything that’s been reported so far on this shitshow is from unattributed sources and decades old environmentalist lawfare.

    This is a classic case of the media just saying shit because they think they know what they are talking about and expecting people to believe it when in fact they literally have no fucking clue what they’re talking about and have obviously made no attempt to gather an opinion from somebody that might actually know something.

    1. ^^^

      So far the dam is working as expected. It held up to a severe flooding event. If it doesn’t fail, then it didn’t exactly what it was intended to do. No one ever engineers these things to work flawlessly. They are designed to work up to a certain expected event severity and possibly have enough to survive something worse.
      I have yet to hear what this event is classified as….100 year flood, 500, 1000? That’s important.
      Most dams are designed to…
      brush off normal floods
      hold up well to severe floods
      possibly hold up to millennial floods, but all bets are off.

      The lack of basic education about flood control in the media is appalling.

      1. I took a basic hydro course in college and we toured earthen flood control dams in NH. Most of them were built to 100-year flood specifications. It was amazing the number of communities in the valleys below the dams.

        People are ignorant, building homes where there is a strong likelihood a flood event will wipe it out in their lifetime.

      2. this is a ten year event since we get these storms every ten years. the experts always call them 100 year events even though they happen every ten. I’ll admit though the 2006/7 event was pretty small but at 55 years old there has been one ever ten years of my life

      3. If it doesn’t fail, then it didn’t exactly what it was intended to do

        You also like it not to cause hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damage. There is more to managing flows out of a dam than “failing or not failing.”

    2. In Cali there are lots of engineers who are wacko environmentalist so finding an engineer wouldn’t be that hard. Also you can always find an engineer who will point out flaws but it is a lot harder to find engineers that will give any building a complete good bill of health, they always have caveats

      1. you can always find an engineer who will point out flaws but it is a lot harder to find engineers that will give any building a complete good bill of health

        ^ Now those are some true words, right there.

        1. I wouldn’t go that far. They definitely appear true and would probably stand up to scrutiny on most occasions. But there are likely to be some possible scenarios where they aren’t completely accurate.

      2. That’s why you don’t ask an engineer, you ask an investor.

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  9. A couple of points
    1.the environmental groups that made the claim during the relicensing of the dam made the claims because they want any reason to remove the dam that is their ultimate goal.
    they want to remove all dams
    2. the emergency spillway is separate from the dam and will not harm the dam if it fails.
    3. the idea that if the emergency spillway had a concrete surface it would have not have failed is false considering the main spillway, also not a part of the dam, is concrete and it failed thus requiring the use.
    4. the problem was not a lack of construction methods but a lack of maintenance.
    5. based on code changes and constructions methods every structure in America can fall under the false umbrella of structurally lacking which the left loves to talk about our infra structure as immenent failures waiting to happen

    1. 1. Friends of the River and the Sierra Club may well just want the dam gone, yes. South Yuba Citizens League has the most direct interest in the dam not failing. The other groups (esp. Friends of the River) may also honestly be concerned about the dam failing. It doesn’t necessarily take a cynical secondary motivation to be concerned about a dam failure.

      2. This is true, and has been inaccurately reported, but failure of the berm at the emergency spillway would still be catastrophic.

      3. We don’t do concrete surfaces on earthen dams, as they would be almost certain to fail in an overflow event (especially repeated overflow events). You entrain cement into the soil that makes up the dam in order to give it more coherence.

      4. Exactly right ? but reinforcing the emergency spillway with cement would have been a good idea.

      5. And sometimes they’re right, but as someone else pointed out, the “crying wolf effect” happens a lot. Had the dam been under private management by an entity that would be liable for consequences, my money says the proper steps would have been taken.

      1. “2. This is true, and has been inaccurately reported, but failure of the berm at the emergency spillway would still be catastrophic.”

        The comments on this are amazing: “The dam isn’t failing!”
        The dam could be in perfect condition and we’d still have a hell of a mess if it were empty because the water cut down the ’emergency spillway’.
        We don’t care about the dam; we care about the water behind it.

      2. South Yuba Citizens League most definately wants the dam removed want them all removed even though they were put in place to stop the yearly floods that were occuring. Syrcl is actively campaining to have the dams removed.

        1. South Yuba Citizens League most definately wants the dam removed

          Citation?

  10. RE: Oroville Dam Threatens Valley After Warnings Ignored Long Ago
    Government failed to pay attention to concerns brought up more than a decade ago.

    1. But, but, but…the government can do no wrong! It isn’t the government’s fault the dam threatens the valley. Its the fault of those damn greedy capitalists who refuse to give all their ill-gotten gains to a bunch of politicians, bureaucrats and their cronies. Had these selfish money makers had gladly given their money to the government, all would be well.
    2. Where did all the money (federal and state) go for infrastructure? Where’s the transparency? Oh, wait. All us little people are not to question or obvious betters oppressing us. My bad.

    1. It’s the faulty construction done by Guy Atkinson!
      (BTW, what gov’t office drew up the plans?)

  11. Infrastructure? Infrastructure is low on the priority list in California.

    Our highest priority is paying retired state employees extremely generous retirement benefits. We make this happen by having a pension board declare that they can reach returns of 8%/year and we allow double dipping too. We simply cannot pay our employees enough during their retirements. We could subject them to 401k programs, but this would get rid of the Democrat-union relationship that is need to make sure that tax payers pay their “fair share”.

    Our second largest priority is a choo-choo train that will haul hundreds of Europeans every summer who will marvel on how anything like this could have ever been built.

  12. Moonbeam will demonstrate his awesomeness by standing at the bottom of the dam and ordering it not to fail.

    1. Oh please, yes!

    2. Way back in his first administration in the 70’s, I used to live across the street from his penthouse. One morning I noticed a group of news and camera people and decided to go across and find out was was going on.

      I asked a camera man and his words, and I quote, were “We’re just doing a story on the governor’s normal day and waiting for him to come down to go to work … Whenever he comes down … Well … if he comes down.”

      That told me a whole lot about what he actually did as governor.

  13. Plenty of money for criminal aliens. Not any money for what government should be doing.

    That’s Kalifornia for you: Land of fruits, nuts and vegetables.

  14. One of the problems is Oroville Dam was built as a primary power generation dam. Typically they’re held to 80% or less capacity so they have plenty enough room to handle extreme precipitation seasons.

    At some point the State decided to re-designate Oroville to a primary reservoir dam, typically held to 80% or more capacity whenever possible, even if it means shutting down power generation. Doing that increases the chance of it filling enough to require using the spillways.

    Now add in not making any changes like paving the hillside below the emergency spillway, reinforcing the main spillway or even doing something like coating it with heavy polyurethane (think extra thick truck bed liner) and there’s the recipe for a mess just waiting for an extreme precipitation season.

    What the evacuation was for was if the emergency spillway wall failed, the top 30 feet of water in the reservoir would have dumped into the Feather River.

  15. 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.

  16. Why fix the dam? If it breaks, they’ll somehow manage to blame “corporations” for it and make political gains out of it. I mean, Democrats managed to blame Flint on Republicans and “corporations” and portray Citizens United as a decision in which the likes of Coca Cola win over free speech.

    Arguably, much of the progressive and Democratic playbook consists of first causing disasters then claiming to be the only ones who can fix them.

    Single party states with good propaganda systems don’t need to actually do anything for the people, they can use any disaster for political gain, even if they themselves caused it.

  17. So a former assemblyman Tim Donnelly, a Republican from San Bernardino County, is criticizing the governor (from the opposite party) for doing something he (Tim Donnelly) does not like and as a result something bad happens. OK, I got that. A couple of questions. Did Tim Donnelly (when he was an assemblyman) ever call out the problem with the spillway? Did Tim Donnelly ever propose or pass ANY legislation that would have prevented the problem he is criticizing democrats (or, if you prefer, the enemy) for? To quote your article, “That’s a harsh assessment”.

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  20. Lesson to environmentalist and all other government pushers….stop crying wolf about every single “risk or disaster” you can imagine and maybe someone will listen when there is actually legit problems.

    To sir republican criticizing brown…,u have the wrong enemy….attack the people who issued the report and show all the other crazy reports about farmer brown digging a small fish pond on his land as some sort of environmental risk that they also undoubtably wrote.

    This is stuff a 3 year old understands.

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