Riled allies

Supervisor, Oroville group challenge dam relicensure

The Oroville Dam spillway returned to operation last Tuesday (April 2 with its first water flows since the February 2017 disaster.

The Oroville Dam spillway returned to operation last Tuesday (April 2 with its first water flows since the February 2017 disaster.

Photo courtesy of California Department of Water Resources

Alliance’s actions:
Visit or for updates on the Feather River Recovery Alliance.

Robert Bateman recalls the moment he first became concerned about Oroville Dam. With winter rain amassing, he received a call that his manufacturing business, Roplast Industries, would need to evacuate as a precaution. As he locked the door, Bateman told himself: “One time, you can understand this sort of thing—if it happens again, I’m going to stick with it till the problem’s solved.”

That was during the New Year’s floods of 1997, when the worst storm in 90 years inundated 250 square miles of the Sacramento Valley. Even as the dam spillway offloaded large volumes from Lake Oroville, water levels grew so high that officials nearly needed to utilize the emergency spillway—an undeveloped hillside.

Of course, 20 years later, the Oroville Dam crisis struck. High water in February 2017 forced 188,000 people in the dam’s shadow to evacuate. The main spillway fractured, and a portion of the terrain of the emergency spillway washed away under the force of the flow directed there. Only last Tuesday (April 2), after a billion-dollar reconstruction, did the primary spillway return to service.

“In 2017, I felt very guilty about not having taken action after [’97], because the writing was on the wall,” Bateman told the CN&R. “So I said, ‘This is it.’”

Having given up day-to-day management of Roplast, he joined other business owners to form Oroville Strong, a group affiliated with the Oroville Area Chamber of Commerce that aimed to promote the city. The businesspeople spun off from the chamber last year into a new nonprofit, the Feather River Recovery Alliance, to focus on issues with the dam.

Alliance members assert that the spillway failure could be the tip of an iceberg of safety problems. They also endorse the notion that the city and county do not receive due compensation for the dam’s impacts on the area—a cause long championed by Bill Connelly, the Butte County supervisor whose district encompasses Oroville.

They’re pressing their case with a united front. Last Friday (April 5), during the county’s annual legislative trip to Washington, D.C., Connelly hand-delivered a letter and documentation to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) expressing opposition to the dam’s relicensure. That followed an electronic filing by the alliance.

In submitting this notice of protest, which also indicates their intent to intervene in the proceedings, the local parties informed FERC and the dam’s operator, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR), that the agencies could face a formal challenge if concerns aren’t addressed. Connelly’s letter cites a petition signed by nearly 9,500 people.

DWR, contacted by email, declined to comment.

Oroville Dam’s 50-year license expired in 2006. Since 2007, DWR has operated the facility on a series of one-year extensions. Butte County has taken the state to court, most recently for damages from the spillway incident (see “DA sues DWR over dam,” Downstroke, Feb. 18, 2018).

In this action, Connelly isn’t acting as a county official per se. He told the CN&R that “the county’s official position is parallel” to his—that is, the lack of recreational tourism opportunities exacerbates the financial drain on local government—but he’s waging his fight “out of a passion to help the local people.”

In the FERC filing, which he’s posted online (see infobox), Connelly excerpted state and federal documents dating as far back as 1961, when construction began. Work finished in 1967, with the dam opening in 1968.

“It’s a little bit boring reading,” he told the CN&R, “but anyone who reads the history of the facility will understand, from the beginning, how they boondoggled us. ‘Hey, if you vote for this [project’s water bonds], you’ll have Disneyland, you’ll have all these tourists, you’ll make all this money.’”

Promises have included a monorail, a train, a restaurant and snack bar in the visitor center—none ever built.

“I’m not asking for a monorail or a steam engine or anything they mentioned or promised,” Connelly said. “I’m just looking for something comparable, like a great trail system, or [to] increase our camping, or fix the roads.”

Bateman and Richard Harriman, an attorney working with the Feather River Recovery Alliance, cited concerns about structural integrity and durability of the dam, which both noted was built with 60-year-old construction principles. They base their claims in substantial part on the Independent Forensic Team Report released Jan. 5, 2018, in response to the spillway incident (see, which delineates trouble spots in “the dam safety culture and program within DWR.” The alliance seeks an inspection and oversight from an entity outside the influence of DWR, and revised operating procedures.

“If you don’t have a demonstrably robust safety protocol,” Harriman said, “you can’t bring any economic development to Oroville, because nobody’s going to locate their business below a dam that isn’t provably safe.”

Financial recompense, he continued, can come from recreational facilities and/or a surcharge on customers who don’t pay for the water from Oroville (they pay just the agencies’ costs of storage and conveyance).

“If you really look at it,” Harriman said, “all the expenses that the county of Butte incurs to service the people that are brought in by the dam, those costs are charged to the Butte County taxpayers…. The county of Butte is subsidizing the water users in Southern California, the State Water Contractors [association of public water agencies] and the agricultural industry using the water in the San Joaquin Valley.

“Why are we subsidizing them? It makes my blood boil.”