Now what?

With tensions easing at Oroville Dam spillway, leaders look to the future

Like it or not, the crisis with the Oroville Dam spillways and associated evacuation order put Oroville on the map for people throughout California, the United States and the world. Some locals see that as an opportunity, both for tourism and infrastructure repairs. Others are seizing the moment to demand fair and equitable treatment from state and federal officials.

“All of a sudden, weather maps on the news in Los Angeles are showing forecasts for L.A., San Francisco and Oroville,” said Nicole Johansson, member of the Butte County Tourism Business Improvement District (TBID) board. “Everyone knows where we are!”

For Johansson, who works as director of marketing and communications for Enloe Medical Center, that’s a positive, despite the negative nature of the news that put a spotlight on Oroville in the first place. “I’ve worked in marketing my entire career, and at some point you have to say, there’s no such thing as bad publicity,” she said. “People know where Lake Oroville is on a map. They see a lake with great hiking, fishing, boating .… In terms of a California destination, there’s a big opportunity here.”

Her positivity bears weight, as the TBID, a relatively new district tasked with attracting visitors to Butte County using money collected from local hotels, has thus far focused its energy on—you guessed it—Oroville. The consulting firm hired to help, FMG Consulting, identified the town as the hook to lure visitors. “Oroville is really the key to our travel strategy,” said Johansson, who lives in Oroville. Her husband, Jamie, owns Lodestar Farms, and the couple launched the Sierra Oro Farm Trail. “Making Oroville the gateway for world-class recreational opportunities—the lake—is one of the things [the consultant] said from the very beginning was the key for bringing tourism to Butte County.”

So, that’s still a go? Despite the crisis at the dam? Apparently so, at least from the TBID’s perspective. “The concern right now is making sure the spillway is reinforced,” Johansson said. “We have national and federal support here trying to make that happen for us. Once we’re out of the spring runoff season and into the summer season for Oroville, there’s really no reason not to visit.”

Parts of Lake Oroville were reopened Wednesday (Feb. 22) for recreation, but areas near the spillways remain closed until further notice. “We’re moving forward with our plan in hopes that everything is open for business this summer, that the lake is open for business,” Johansson said.

For local government leaders like Bill Connelly, Butte County supervisor for the Oroville area, there’s still too much work to be done to repair damage to the spillways—and the town’s spirit—to be so optimistic. In fact, he’s skeptical, going so far as to question the motives behind Department of Water Resources statements that work will be done, everything will be fine.

“Incompetence at DWR should never be let go,” he said by phone. “What they’re doing is, they’re coming to town, they’re making us collaborate, cooperate, get along, but in the end they’ll do little or nothing. They’ve already changed the terminology from ’emergency spillway’ to ‘auxiliary spillway.’ That’s a psychological attack on my people to try to make them believe there’s some control. There’s no control with the emergency spillway. When you use that spillway, you’re at the mercy of the weather.

“They need to concentrate on keeping my people safe, and keeping the people downstream safe—not on delivering water to water contractors.”

Indeed, a warning is still in effect for those residing along the Feather River south of the dam. While water levels in the lake have been reduced—sufficiently, officials say—there are still rains and mountain runoff to come.

“There’s still an evacuation warning, and until it’s not a warning, people need to be prepared,” Oroville Mayor Linda Dahlmeier said Wednesday (Feb. 22) by phone.

Work is underway to strengthen the emergency spillway, and the huge amount of attention on Oroville—including media from around the world—has resulted in better information from dam officials, Connelly said. “I think the public can count on reports being fairly factual now,” he said.

For his part, Connelly wants five things to come out of this crisis. “No. 1 in my mind is safety. The dam needs to be rebuilt in a manner that’s consistent with the 21st century.” Second, daily operations should consider flood control in the 21st century—including climate change. Third, he would like to see the community compensated for this incident and the disruptions it’s caused. No. 4: “We need ongoing compensation.” That’s been promised from the start and never delivered, he said. And finally, “They need to consider really bringing recreation here.”

Dahlmeier is more optimistic than Connelly about the sufficiency of the work being done by DWR. She sees this eye on Oroville as an opportunity to improve infrastructure. For instance, the trucks carrying rock and concrete that have wreaked havoc on Oroville’s streets—Connelly pointed to the junction of Oro Dam Boulevard and Olive Highway as particularly bad—offer a chance to improve roads.

“They are doing a number on our streets,” Dahlmeier acknowledged. “But what’s going to be really nice about all of that—guess who’s going to have all new roads?”

Criticism of a lack of sirens signaling an emergency, too, is an opportunity as Dahlmeier sees it. “They used to have a siren system, but a lot of that is defunct because of bad infrastructure underneath our community. Our phones go out in low-lying areas when it rains because of the bad infrastructure. Without upgraded tech, we can’t make [sirens] work. Moving forward, there will be pots of money available from FEMA. And I’ll certainly be looking to some of the telecom companies with that in mind.”