Could California give a cash payout to the 188,000 residents who frantically evacuated in February’s Oroville Dam crisis?
That’s the end goal of a lawsuit filed Friday in Butte County Superior Court by evacuees Francis Bechtel, Jacob Klein, Chantel Ramirez and Denise Johnson.
Their suit seeking class-action status alleges that the state Department of Water Resources negligently allowed maintenance woes at the nation’s tallest dam to fester, according to their Los Angeles attorney, Patrick McNicholas.
“When you’re operating a dam, you’re required to conduct reasonable inspections and do reasonable maintenance,” McNicholas said in an interview. “For this to occur, you had to have had not been doing that.”
A DWR spokeswoman declined to comment on the pending litigation. DWR officials have insisted for months that they maintained the dam to current standards and that routine federal and state inspections found no evidence to suggest the dam’s main flood-control spillway was about to disintegrate.
But McNicholas alleges that cracks in the spillway weren’t properly repaired, and that the state allowed trees to grow next to the spillway, leading to roots plugging the spillway’s drains. The suit says that all 188,000 evacuees living below the dam are potential plaintiffs. The case is being handled jointly by McNicholas’ firm, McNicholas & McNicholas and the Sacramento attorneys at Frantz Law Group.
A giant crater formed in the spillway on Feb. 7 as state officials drained water from Lake Oroville while a powerful storm sent huge flows pouring into the state’s second-largest reservoir. Fearing more damage would be done to the battered chute, dam operators dialed back flows and allowed the lake to rise to the point that water started to cascade over an adjacent emergency spillway — a concrete lip perched above an unlined hillside — that never had been used.
On Feb. 12, officials ordered the cities below the dam to evacuate when the hillside below the emergency spillway appeared ready to wash away. The DWR eventually resolved the crisis by ramping up flows down the battered main spillway and lowering the lake’s water level. The crisis and ongoing two-year repair job have cost an estimated $500 million. Nearly 100 people have filed claims with the state seeking at least $1.17 billion in damages. Claims are often a precursor to lawsuits.
Outside experts have told The Sacramento Bee since February that engineers who designed and built the dam in the 1960s obviously overestimated the strength of the rock and material underneath the spillway. Bob Bea, an expert on engineering failures at the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at UC Berkeley, has issued two independent reports that concluded the spillway failure was all but inevitable given that the design problems were compounded by inadequate upkeep and maintenance.
As late as 2014, federal inspectors said it was so unlikely the main spillway would crumble that there wasn’t need for further studies to plan for that emergency scenario.
Federal inspectors concluded that, based on engineering studies, inspections and other geo-technical information they reviewed, the main spillway chute was “in good condition, and the underlying rock is very competent,” they wrote in a 2014 federal report to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. “Competent” is a term that engineers and geologists use to describe the ability of rock to resist erosion.
The failure to detect the problems in the spillway has prompted state and federal dam regulators to reevaluate their methods. They also ordered the operators of dozens of dams across California to perform more thorough spillway inspections.
The DWR hopes to have the spillways repaired and ready for use in time for the winter rainy season. Federal dam regulators ordered the DWR to hire a team of independent engineers to perform a forensic analysis on why the spillways failed. The forensic team’s report is expected to be released this fall.