$15 million and counting

Farms’ flood claim is just one of many facing DWR

Orchard Manager George Onyett surveys part of the stretch where Feather River flows swept away more than 700 walnut trees.

Orchard Manager George Onyett surveys part of the stretch where Feather River flows swept away more than 700 walnut trees.

Photo by Robert Speer

When the Feather River started rising in February as a result of emergency spillway releases from Lake Oroville, George Onyett had a riverside view.

For 41 years he’s been manager of a 2,000-acre walnut-growing operation that straddles the river about 13 miles downstream from Oroville. Last Thursday (Aug. 3), while standing on the banks of the now-placid river, Onyett called attention to several bankside trees that had toppled over as the rising water washed away the soil that held them in place.

The loss was personal for him: Over the years, he’d planted all of the approximately 90,000 trees on the farms, and it pained him to see any of them destroyed, he said. All told, the river washed away 25 acres of soil containing more than 700 trees. The land is gone, sent downriver along with most of the trees. It cannot be replanted because it no longer exists.

The owners of the walnut groves, JEM Farms and Chandon Ranch, believe the state Department of Water Resources (DWR) and Division of Safety of Dams (DSOD) are to blame for their losses and have filed a $15 million claim demanding reparation for the damages. If, as expected, the state denies the claim, it will go to court.

At an Oroville press conference earlier that day attended by several Sacramento television news crews, among other media, Onyett joined attorneys from the Burlingame-based firm Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy to explain their claim and, in particular, its dollar figure.

At its highest level, Onyett said, the river flooded the JEM Farm to a depth of 4 feet in some areas: “The entire ranch was under water.”

Attorney Camilo Artiga-Purcell said the lost land was worth between $1 million and $2 million, ongoing repair costs will amount to $200,000, and $14 million is the cost of lost production over the lifespans of the trees, which can live for 50 years.

“Are you in a flood plain?” a reporter asked.

“Yes,” replied attorney Niall McCarthy.

“Has it flooded before?”

“Yes, but that was nature,” McCarthy said. “This was human error.”

McCarthy’s claim is based on several reports—some issued before the spillway crisis, others afterward—indicating that officials at DWR and DSOD, which are responsible for the maintenance of the dam and spillway, knew they had serious problems but instead of correcting them “acted recklessly and with intent.” This led to the deterioration of the spillway and, ultimately, the forced evacuation of 188,000 people.

Perhaps the most damning report is that of Robert Bea, a professor emeritus of engineering at UC Berkeley. “The gated spillway was managed to failure” by DWR and DSOD and “regulated to failure” by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, he determined. He characterized DWR’s maintenance practice as “patch and pray.”

JEM Farm’s claim is just one of many. According to a report in the Sacramento Bee, a total of 92 claims had been filed as of last week; more are expected to flood in before the Friday (Aug. 11) deadline. The state already is spending some $500 million to repair the dam and spillways, though it expects most of that to be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, according to the Bee.

The state’s defense is likely to be that, given the extraordinary power of the February storms, the river would have flooded even if the dam and spillway had not been damaged. Messages seeking comment, left with multiple DWR spokespeople in its Public Affairs Office, were not returned by press time.