Water & Drought

Living beneath a wall of water: Can Oroville residents trust the dam will hold?

Oroville residents react to possible second evacuation with storm approaching

Thousands of north Sacramento Valley residents will never forget last Sunday night. It was the night they got stuck in the scariest traffic jam they will ever know.
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Thousands of north Sacramento Valley residents will never forget last Sunday night. It was the night they got stuck in the scariest traffic jam they will ever know.

The music was snapped off, and the lunchtime chatter at the Keg Room quieted down. Bartender Vivian Jenkins cranked up the volume on the two TVs hanging over the bar as “The Young and the Restless” ended and the real daytime drama came onscreen: the noon media briefing from Oroville Dam, 3 miles up the road.

Friday’s episode brought encouraging news. Progress was being made on releasing water from Lake Oroville, while work crews continued to patch the dam’s troubled emergency spillway. Kory Honea, the Butte County sheriff, reminded viewers “we’re still operating under an emergency situation” and they needed to be ready to flee.

“Just waiting for the wall of water to come out,” said Dan Hill, 61, as he sipped a glass of red wine, before quickly adding: “You’ve got to make light of this.”

Life isn’t exactly back to normal yet in Oroville. The mandatory evacuations ended last Tuesday, but not everyone has returned home, and folks in town have suitcases packed in case they’re ordered to leave again. Dump trucks and helicopters hauling concrete to the dam have become part of the scenery. Some schools remain closed, and with an “atmospheric river” rainstorm poised to roll into the region Monday, people are keeping a wary eye on their cellphones and TV sets, awaiting the next bulletin.

“Doing laundry and getting ready to go if we have to,” said Matt Mentz, as he and his wife Jessica ate breakfast Friday at Jenn’s Cafe in Oroville.

While most in Oroville have confidence in what they’re hearing from law enforcement and state Department of Water Resources officials, the Mentzes are among the skeptics. They and their five children, among the nearly 190,000 people ordered to evacuate last Sunday afternoon, waited two extra days to come home after Honea lifted the order, preferring the safety of a campground above the dam. They didn’t return to their residence in Thermalito, hard by the roiling Feather River, until late Thursday.

“They’re basically telling us everything that we want to hear,” said Matt Mentz, 35, a forklift driver. “I don’t know if it’s true.” Not convinced the threat is over, Jessica checks the reservoir’s water levels every hour on the DWR’s website, which she bookmarked on her smartphone.

Around Oroville, some of the skepticism is a residue of the chaos and confusion of last weekend, when the message from public officials seemed to change every few hours.

After the crisis erupted Feb. 7, when a crater opened up on the dam’s main spillway, DWR officials assured the public they could still probably release enough water to prevent Lake Oroville from filling to the brim and rushing over the dam’s never-before-used emergency spillway. When the lake filled up anyway, officials said the overflows from the emergency spillway would be minimal and there was no need to panic. Early last Sunday afternoon, DWR acting director Bill Croyle said the situation was manageable.

Then, barely two hours later, erosion on the hillside beneath the emergency spillway sparked fears that the spillway would collapse, prompting hurried mass evacuations in Oroville, Marysville and other downstream communities. Disaster was averted when dam operators frantically ramped up releases from the damaged main spillway, bringing the lake level down to safer levels.

The cascade of mixed messages left Andy Rogers, 59, a farmer who lives a few miles downstream of the dam, questioning whether DWR’s engineers can fix the dam like they say they can.

How do they know what they’re doing now will solve the problem if they have a big storm? It will not surprise me if we have to evacuate.

Andy Rogers, 59, a farmer downstream of the dam

“How do they know what they’re doing now will solve the problem if they have a big storm?” he said over eggs and hash browns at Jenn’s. “It will not surprise me if we have to evacuate.”

The official word Saturday was the situation was continuing to improve. Water levels had fallen to less than 855 feet. That was 46 feet below the top of the dam and just 4 feet above the flood-control level established for this time of year by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The DWR said water releases from the damaged main spillway – throttled up so dramatically last Sunday to 100,000 cubic feet per second to ward off catastrophe – were being dialed back for a third time in recent days, to a more pedestrian 60,000 cfs, so work crews beneath the dam could clear out debris clogging the river at a crucial section.

Officials said they believed the dam would have enough empty space to absorb an expected spike in inflows from the “atmospheric river” forecast for Monday and Tuesday. The National Weather Service said the precipitation, while substantial, isn’t expected to be as bad as what the region experienced just as the main spillway was cracking Feb. 7.

The situation is so promising that officials canceled the scheduled press briefings for Saturday and Sunday.

Meanwhile, the investigation into what caused the original spillway crack began to unspool. Responding to a demand from the federal government, DWR late Friday announced the formation of an independent board to review the incident. The group consists of five engineering consultants from as far away as Colorado.

Back in Oroville, where the news briefings have become must-see TV, there are plenty of theories about what went wrong. At the Keg Room, Hill dropped a couple of ice cubes into his wine glass and reasoned that the DWR engineers goofed by not aggressively increasing water releases from the damaged main spillway. If they had, they could have prevented water from lapping over the emergency spillway in the first place.

“They didn’t really need to use the emergency spillway the way they did,” Hill said.

Despite lingering uncertainty about the dam, many townspeople seem to have reconciled themselves to the risks that go with living in the Oroville area.

“We live in a town with a river,” said Dean Jensen, co-manager of the Ace Hardware in town. “You’ve got to expect some things.”

At Mike’s Grande Burger, a popular bar and restaurant that’s been catering to locals for 36 years, customers who returned from the evacuation were being served a new drink special, concocted just for the occasion: “The Spillway.”

Restaurant manager Levi Fuller said townspeople have accepted life in the shadows of Lake Oroville, the state’s second-largest reservoir, since it opened in 1968.

“This is a tough town,” he said.

Still, a flood threat is the last thing Oroville (pop. 16,000) needs. A Gold Rush town in the middle of Sacramento Valley rice country, Oroville is struggling. Unemployment is an estimated 7.2 percent. The quaint downtown, barely two blocks from the Feather River, sports multiple shuttered storefronts.

Oroville’s most threatened areas

Water released by a serious incident at the Oroville Dam would come rushing through the city in less than an hour. This animated image highlights the lowest parts of Oroville – the areas most likely to flood if the Feather River leaves its channel.
Key Map of low-lying areas in Oroville 
Imagery from Google Earth Pro (2015); elevation data from U.S. Geological Survey
NATHANIEL LEVINE nlevine@sacbee.com

At Nelson’s Footwear, which closed during the evacuation and reopened after the order was lifted, co-owner Karissa Nelson stacked sandbags in front of the shop.

“That’s me, just wanting to prepare, better safe than sorry,” Nelson said.

Some went even further. Kendra Ellis, who lives in nearby Thermalito, was stuffing many of her belongings into a U-Haul trailer Friday afternoon. She had booked a hotel room in Red Bluff, where she works as an occupational therapist.

Do what you need to do to be prepared.

Kory Honea, Butte County sheriff

Her reasoning? The presence of National Guardsmen in the vicinity, which she took as a sign of a heightened flood risk. “My impression is the National Guard only comes when there is a disaster, not when there’s about to be a disaster,” she said.

Anxiety levels surely increased when someone posted a Facebook video last Wednesday in which a National Guardsman was heard discussing “the eventual re-evacuation.” David Baldwin, adjutant general of the California National Guard, appeared at the press briefing that day to say the Guardsman had made a mistake.

On Friday, the sheriff continued to preach caution.

“Do what you need to do to be prepared,” Honea said into the cameras.

His comments seemed to have the desired effect. In his third year as sheriff, Honea (rhymes with “tony”) has become something of a rock star at the media briefings, with a firm but friendly demeanor.

“With his confidence, he makes me feel confident in what he says,” said Dena Swenson, a part-time employee at the Keg Room. “Just think what he’s going through and he hasn’t faltered.”

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler. The Bee’s Ryan Sabalow and Phillip Reese contributed to this report.