County officials, public sound off on current and historical problems at Oroville Dam
A deluge of grievances regarding long-stalled relicensing, management and repairs at the Oroville Dam prompted by the recent crisis at the reservoir were aired at the Butte County Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday (April 11).
Discussion of the dam, which lasted more than two hours, was agendized as an informational update regarding the facility’s relicensing process with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). That process takes place every 50 years and was scheduled for completion in 2007, but has been in limbo due to ongoing disagreements between the county and the state’s Department of Water Resources, which oversees operations at the facility. The dam has been operating on a year-to-year basis for a decade.
Relicensing accounted for only part of the conversation, though, as supervisors, county staff and nearly two dozen members of the public spoke about hardships and fears—particularly in the community of Oroville—stemming from February’s spillway disaster and emergency evacuation. DWR Acting Director William Croyle and several members of his staff were in the audience at the meeting and heard complaints first-hand.
County Counsel Bruce Alpert, who’s been involved in relicensing negotiations for 17 years, led the presentation and pulled no punches as he began with what he characterized as a history of “broken promises.” He noted that much of the information about physical improvements and economic benefits to the area that never materialized was taken directly from documents prepared by the DWR and filed with FERC.
Alpert started with background dating to the dam’s construction, saying the agency never made good on promised provisions to replace resources in areas inundated by Lake Oroville, which included a power plant at Big Bend, roads, historical sites, the entire town of Las Plumas, and 41,000 of acres land that could generate property taxes.
“This project was sold to the citizens of Butte County with these factors in mind,” Alpert said. “There’d be lots of jobs generated, tremendous economic development, we’d get low-cost energy and that [DWR] would maintain all the roads to and from Lake Oroville—which everybody knows is so far from the truth, it’s unbelievable.”
According to original plans, the DWR was also supposed to develop a lodge and other recreation facilities, including a tram to Kelly Ridge, to help draw an estimated 1 million visitors each month. The actual numbers, he said, are about 1.7 million a year. Alpert said FERC ordered the DWR to make millions of dollars’ worth of improvements in a 1994 revised recreation plan that also haven’t been done.
Alpert went on to explain that Oroville residents pay full price for water and power (to Cal Water and PG&E, respectively) rather than receive discounted rates like communities hosting other FERC projects, and that water is exported southward and sold to water contractors in the San Joaquin Valley and elsewhere, who resell it for huge profits.
He also lambasted DWR’s management of the reservoir, noting swim areas have frequently tested positive for fecal coliform bacteria by county environmental health officials during the relicensing process. As pictures of the drought-stricken lake—with low water levels exacerbated by water sold southward—from 2009 and 2014 were displayed, Alpert asked the audience if it looked like a nice place to spend a vacation. He also charged that, for a state agency in environmentally minded California, the DWR never adequately accounted for extreme weather conditions brought about by climate change.
The presentation also compared Oroville Dam to other FERC projects in the country, such as Folsom Dam and the Niagara Project in New York. Host communities for those projects receive some combination of taxes or annual payments, low-cost power, and funding for roads and infrastructure improvements. Butte County receives no such perks.
In summary, Alpert said the dam doesn’t bring net tourism dollars to the area, and instead loses an estimated $12 million annually—$5.3 million for services including police, fire, rescue, roads and traffic and $6.9 million in lost property taxes—with no reimbursement from DWR.
Alpert said the lack of DWR’s positive contributions to Butte County are more apparent in the wake of the spillway incident, which incurred an estimated $200 million in emergency response expenses as of March 24 and is being repaired for about $5 million daily. Butte County is still assessing its costs from the disaster.
During public comment, about 20 speakers approached the podium, most to remark on problems stemming from the spillway incident. Complaints included negative effects on business and real estate, limited access to existing facilities, road damage from trucks, poor water quality on the Feather River and threats to fish and wildlife. Some speakers expressed anger, others fear.
“As of 8:30 this morning, there’s 850 feet of water above our heads … that didn’t used to bother me, but it does now,” one man said. Another equated DWR neglect to criminal conduct, suggesting Sheriff Kory Honea—who also attended the meeting—should arrest the DWR’s Croyle on the spot.
Supervisor Bill Connelly, whose district includes the dam, responded that Croyle—who was named acting director this year—inherited the dam’s problems. He and other supervisors said they hope the information Croyle heard that day—coupled with national attention brought on by February’s crisis—could lead to positive resolutions.
“I came here to listen,” Croyle said to CN&R after the meeting. “We’ve been focused on emergency management and public safety these last 60-plus days as a result of the spillway incident, so I’m coming up to speed on the FERC issues and the history.
“This was a good briefing from the view of Butte County’s elected officials, and it was important for me to come hear it firsthand.”