One year later, Oroville dam crisis still weighs on residents' minds

by Steve Patterson, Bita Ryan and Phil Helsel /  / Updated 

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OROVILLE, California — A year after a failure at a spillway at the nation’s highest dam forced nearly 200,000 to flee the threat of a potential catastrophe, the effects of the near-disaster still weigh on many residents’ minds.

Life has somewhat returned to normal in Oroville, a town of around 19,000 that draws tourists to California’s Gold Country. But businesses say tourism is down, and some say they’ve been left in the dark.

"It was just panic. People were running in the streets. Cars were speeding through town," Oroville resident Genoa Widener recalled this week of the day when the evacuation order was given last year. She said residents were told a 30-foot wall of water could be headed their way.

"The police were driving through town with their loudspeakers on warning people to get out. I saw people running from this park — with their children in their arms, just running down the street. No one knew where to go or what to do," said Widener, who fled with her 2-year-old daughter that day.

A huge crater caused by a failure in the main spillway of the nearly 50-year-old dam, which at 770 feet is the nation's tallest, opened in February of 2017. Rising water in the lake that was sent down an emergency channel caused rapid erosion downstream and around 188,000 people were told to leave for their safety.

The California Department of Water Resources (DWR) has said that the first phase of construction to repair the main spillway was finished in November and that the main spillway can safely pass 100,000 cubic feet per second — around the amount sent down the damaged chute on Feb. 12 after evacuation orders were issued.

An independent report published in January said the California Department of Water Resources, which manages the dam, was insular and overconfident, and that the incident was caused in part by a "long-term systemic failure" of the agency.

Related: Oroville: Cost of crisis at tallest U.S. dam reaches $870M in California

The report said that cracks in the concrete chute slab were detected almost immediately after the project was finished in 1968 but were quickly deemed "normal" — and that repeated repairs were ineffective. The principal designer of the spillway was hired directly from a post-graduate program and had no professional experience designing spillways, the report said.

The experts’ report said the near-disaster at the dam can't be blamed on any one agency and it also faulted general industry practices. It said the crisis "is a wake-up call for everyone involved in dam safety."

Related: Oroville Dam spillway failure: Nearly 190,000 ordered to evacuate

Dam safety programs in the United States have improved substantially since the failures of the Teton Dam in Idaho and the Kelly Barnes Dam in Georgia in the 1976 and 1977, John France, the team leader of the group that wrote the Oroville report, said in a recent interview.

"But we've gotten somewhat comfortable that our dam safety programs are doing well and they’re improving," France said.

"And I think what this points out is there are some things that we're not doing that we need to do to find some of these more subtle, harder to see weaknesses and vulnerabilities in our structures, particularly those designed 50 and 60 years ago that our current practice may not be picking up," he said.

Image: Thousands Evacuated Near Oroville Dam As Spillway Threatens To Fail
In this handout provided by the California Department of Water Resources, the California Department of Water Resources has suspended flows from the Oroville Dam spillway after a concrete section eroded on the middle section of the spillway on February 7, 2017.Kelly M. Grow / California Dept of Water Resources via Getty Images

The Oroville Dam is part of California's massive State Water Project, which sends water to Southern California and to irrigate farmland. Because maintenance costs are passed on to 29 state public water agencies, there likely was pressure on the Department of Water Resources to control costs, the experts’ report said, but the investigators did not examine those possible aspects in detail.

The near-disaster in Oroville, which also affected surrounding communities in Butte County downstream of the dam, has inspired a kind of macabre humor among some residents.

The Miner’s Alley Brewing Company in Oroville changed the name of some its menu offerings. The pulled pork sandwich is now a "spillway pulled pork," and a chicken breast sandwich is called the DWR — the name of the state agency, but also they say an acronym for "delicious with ranch" — and one can order the "The Levee," which is advertised as a dish in which "a generous portion of jalapeno cream cheese is kept from flooding the lower lands" by an onion ring.

But the evacuation had real consequences. Miner’s Alley was closed for a week,which cost an estimated around $10,000 for just a few days, said company CFO Connie Parks. The business filed a claim with the state for damages but it was rejected.

"It took a while for people to feel comfortable even coming downtown, since we're right next to the levee and the river. So it was slow to come back," Parks said. "It's the tourism that's really suffered because of the attraction of the dam — there’s no camping, no boating, there’s no parking, it’s blocked off for construction," she said.

"This is infrastructure that the state should have taken care of years ago," Parks added. "This is devastating for our reputation," she said.

The Department of Water Resources said in a statement in January that it "has already made significant progress to bolster the dam safety program to include comprehensive re-evaluations of every spillway with attributes similar to Lake Oroville's" and that "these re-evaluations go far beyond the standard inspections."

"Public safety is DWR's primary goal in how we operate and maintain infrastructure and we are committed to using the information in the report and other lessons learned to strengthen and improve dam operations, policies, and procedures," DWR spokesperson Erin Mellon said in an email this week.

The department is already moving forward with recommendations in the experts' report, Mellon said. She said the agency has conducted a robust public outreach program to keep the community informed.

The agency says the first indication of erosion on the main spillway was detected on Feb. 7, 2017, that the dam is inspected twice a year by the state Division of Safety of Dams, and that "no significant concerns" had previously been raised by the state or federal government about the stability or structural integrity of the main spillway.

"Repairing a dam is great ... but what's happened to the view of Oroville as a safe place to live?" David Steindorf of American Whitewater, one of the environmental groups that had long complained that the state ignored concerns about the dam's construction flaws, told the Associated Press in January. "There's a lot of long-term impacts that need to be addressed."

The cost of dealing with the near-disaster at the Oroville has been estimated at $870 million, state officials said in January. That figure includes repairs, debris removal and power line replacement and the emergency response among other issues.

Image: The Oroville Dam spillway releases 100,000 cubic feet of water per second
The Oroville Dam spillway releases 100,000 cubic feet of water per second down the main spillway in Oroville, California on Feb. 13, 2017.Josh Edelson / AFP - Getty Images

The city of Oroville in a lawsuit filed in January alleges that the crisis at the dam was the result of "decades of mismanagement and intentional lack of maintenance" by the Department of Water Resources, and said the agency "buried its head in the sand" after being made aware of problems. The lawsuit said the city's roads and infrastructure were damaged by flooding and the emergency response, and that the town suffered loss of revenue from tourism.

The average age of the more than 90,000 dams in the United States is 56 years old, according to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials, an average age older than the Oroville Dam.

The American Society of Civil Engineers in its 2017 report rated the state of the nation's infrastructure as a whole and gave it a D-plus.

President Donald Trump talked about the need for infrastructure work in his State of the Union address, calling on Congress for a bill that generates $1.5 trillion, but which should leverage local and private dollars and "streamline" approval and permitting processes. The White House is expected to unveil its infrastructure plan this week. Trump's framework was said to seek $200 billion in federal dollars.

"Unfortunately, decades of underinvestment in the maintenance of our infrastructure has led us to an overall infrastructure funding gap of 2 trillion dollars," Kristina Swallow, president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, said. "So, investment by the federal government is good, but $200 billion will not be enough to meet the needs of our infrastructure," she said.

Related: Skeptics on Trump infrastructure plan include Trump

Colorado and New Mexico were cited in the Oroville dam report as two states that have begun incorporating file reviews and failure mode analyses into their regular activities. The report said most other state regulators center their activities around physical inspections.

Colorado, citing the age of dams it oversees, started a more comprehensive approach to dam safety in 2013 and it began to be fully implemented in 2015, before the problems at the Oroville Dam spillway.

"The Oroville incident, what that really does for us is give us a sense of urgency," Bill McCormick, chief of Colorado Dam Safety, said in a phone interview last week.

Image: US-DAM-WEATHER
A playground is seen submerged in flowing water at Riverbend Park as the Oroville Dam releases water down the spillway in Oroville, California on February 13, 2017.Josh Edelson / AFP - Getty Images

Colorado has around 425 "high hazard" dams — or dams in which failure of the dam is expected to cause loss of life — with around 50 of those under federal control, and the state agency can restrict water levels if problems are found in order to spur owners to make changes. The state review includes a potential failure modes analysis, or PFMA, which includes a comparison of existing engineering and construction standards.

PFMAs were done at the Oroville Dam. One, in 2014, looked at potential failures on the spillway but they were deemed unlikely to result in a catastrophic uncontrolled release of the reservoir, according to the report. The reason for that "was a judgment that the rock foundations were generally non-erodible," according to the report. In almost all of the five-year reviews "the spillway failure modes appear to have been 'off the radar,'" it said.

Widener, whose grandfather was born in Oroville in 1904 and whose family has lived here since, said last week that for months after residents were allowed to return, people she knows kept their cars packed just in case they had to flee again.

She said she's hopeful that the crisis at the dam inspires changes, and wants the Department of Water Resources to be held accountable for what happened.

"I'm really angry because it's my family, and it's my friends, and it's my town that, that they put in jeopardy," Widener said.

Steve Patterson and Bita Ryan reported from Oroville. Phil Helsel reported from Los Angeles.

CORRECTION (Feb. 14, 2018, 3:06 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated the population of Oroville. It is 19,033, not around 8,000, the Census Bureau estimates.

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