Eye of the storm
Emergency repairs just the beginning of long and costly dam construction
Though eerily sparse, the city was far from abandoned. SUVs from multiple agencies—Oroville Police, Cal Fire, California Highway Patrol and sheriff’s offices from several North State counties—accounted for much of the traffic, but several rubberneckers and residents also drove through for a look at the restricted area. A handful of reporters and photographers recently released from a noon press conference not far from Oroville Dam’s broken main spillway—many of whom had parachuted in from major media markets—wandered around in pairs, seeking B-roll of the storm-swollen Feather River and sandbagged storefronts. A female voice rang over the loudspeaker of a slow-moving emergency vehicle, warning people they were in an evacuated flood zone and to not park on the levy adjacent to the city’s Municipal Auditorium.
A few more were walking on the pedestrian bridge spanning the river at Washington Street. There were a couple of tourists, a few more reporters, and one major player in the Oroville Dam disaster and upcoming relief efforts—Rep. Doug LaMalfa.
At Monday’s press conference, LaMalfa said he’d sent letters to the White House that morning asking for financial and physical help with the current emergency and restoration of the dam moving forward. Gov. Jerry Brown declared it a state emergency Sunday (Feb. 12). President Trump took action and approved direct federal assistance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Tuesday (Feb. 14), but the White House’s lack of comment before that was chilling in light of Trump’s recent criticisms of an “out of control” California and threats to defund the state over immigration issues. LaMalfa has marched lock-step with Trump since the billionaire took office, praising the president’s stances and actions taken on immigration, abortion, deregulation and other issues.
But LaMalfa was clear in his belief that the federal government “should take responsibility for their share of the problem we have here,” both for the current emergency and going forward. He explained that the federal government is responsible for flood control across the entire country, and that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers assumed 20 percent of funding when Oroville Dam was built in 1968.
A little later Monday afternoon, the DWR mobilized helicopters to drop bags of aggregate to patch up erosion and redirect water around that damage on the dam’s emergency spillway should it be used again. LaMalfa noted weathering the next storm is just the first step in a long and costly operation.
“We’re also working on engineering today what it’s going to take to build this thing back up,” he said. “We need to get equipment up there and start working the day it’s dry enough. There’s only going to be a short window of time—maybe May to November—to get something in place to ensure the utility and safety of the dam going into next year.”
LaMalfa said rebuilding might require cutting some corners: “We can’t be fooling around or held up by a bunch of permits and lawsuits and nonsense,” he said. “My fear is that some environmental organization might come out and say, ‘Oh, we need to account for the erosion and this and that,’ or that the construction might cause some silt to come out and affect some fish or something. But the sin has already been committed with the amount of erosion, and we have to do whatever is necessary. It needs to be a smooth process to get construction done timely and with no hold-ups with the permitting or funding necessary to get the job done.”
During a press conference Tuesday, Bill Croyle, DWR acting director, said that rebuilding efforts are taking place concurrently with emergency measures, noting 125 construction crews are on-site.
“We’re drawing down the lake,” Croyle said, “and we’re going to aggressively attack the downslope of the spillway to reinforce that to ensure that if we have to use it during the major spring wash, we can. We want to reduce that risk to acceptable levels—we believe it’s there now—but we’re going to continue to address it.
“We’re already bringing our design team together to look at the repair of our infrastructure,” Croyle continued. “You probably won’t see a stop in the number of trucks and materials and people as they switch from a response mode and high-level monitoring to the point we’re going to recover the system and bring our infrastructure back into place. It’s going to be a pretty busy construction season, starting early this week right through until our spillway and the infrastructure with that dam is fully operational.”
Croyle and other officials have declined to comment on reporters’ questions about emerging reports about potential lack of oversight that could have led to the spillway situation. Those included a prescient 2002 report from the Yuba County Water Agency—filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2005 by three environmental groups during a court proceeding regarding the dam’s still-incomplete relicensing—stating that use of the unconcreted emergency spillway could lead to erosion, danger to high-voltage transmission towers, flooding and structure failure.
“That’s something we’ll have to look into,” LaMalfa said. “There’s reports on inspections that are available, and I’m sure we’ll be seeing them … but I want to give everyone a fair shake regarding how all this has all come about.”