Water & Drought

Trump administration sends payout for Oroville Dam crisis. Could more be on the way?

Federal disaster officials have agreed to chip in $22.8 million to help California pay the estimated $500 million cost of the Oroville Dam crisis.

Victor Inge, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Wednesday that the reimbursement is to cover some costs associated with the emergency as well as for removing the massive pile of debris that washed down from the spillway and plugged the Feather River channel below the dam.

Inge said the state’s requests for reimbursement still are being reviewed, and additional payouts could take several more months.

Department of Water Resources spokeswoman Erin Mellon said Wednesday during a biweekly conference call with reporters that she expects more money to come the state’s way.

“That was just the first of many reimbursements,” Mellon said.

It has been uncertain whether Donald Trump’s administration would agree to reimburse California after February’s spillway crisis at the country’s tallest dam. The state has asked the federal government to pay up to 75 percent of the costs of the emergency and ongoing repair and recovery efforts.

The Trump administration approved a disaster declaration in the spring that would make the state eligible for millions of dollars in emergency funding, but a state official warned lawmakers in May that how much the feds pay could depend on whether the federal government concludes the state properly maintained the dam’s spillway before it crumbled.

“Was this deferred maintenance?” Bill Croyle, the then-acting DWR director, asked members of the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee. “Is there a maintenance issue here, because they’re not going to cover that. If it’s an emergency response, they’re going to cover.”

State 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 that’s what happened Feb. 7 as state officials drained water from Lake Oroville to make room as a powerful warm, winter storm sent huge flows pouring into the state’s second-largest reservoir.

The lower portion of the half-mile-long spillway developed a gaping hole that began to expand as water hit it. Fearing more damage would be done to the battered chute, dam operators killed the 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 got a handle on the crisis after reopening the battered main spillway and lowering the lake’s water level. But water roaring down the spillway destroyed the chute’s lower portion and plugged the river channel with rock and concrete.

A recently released federal inspection report further illustrates the extent to which officials were caught off guard by the crisis. In late 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.” “Competent” is a term that engineers and geologists use to describe the ability of rock to resist erosion.

The DWR posted the heavily redacted document on its website in late July. The Sacramento Bee had requested the inspection report and other records in February through the Public Records Act, but the state originally denied the publication’s request, citing a law aimed at preventing information about critical infrastructure from being used by terrorists.

Outside experts have told The Bee since February that it is obvious that engineers who designed the dam overestimated the strength of the rock and material underneath the spillway. Oroville Dam was completed in 1968. The DWR hopes to have the spillways repaired and ready for use in time for the winter rainy season.

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow

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