Water & Drought

Oroville mayor said all was well during dam crisis. Was she being spun?

The gaping crater in Oroville Dam’s spillway was growing larger, the reservoir was filling to the brim, but Oroville’s mayor had a consistent message for her constituents living below the nation’s tallest dam: The Department of Water Resources had everything under control.

“I want to reiterate that the DWR has assured us there is no public safety risk from the situation with the Oroville spillway,” Mayor Linda Dahlmeier posted on her Facebook page on Feb. 10.

Six months later, Dahlmeier finds herself on the defensive. And not because her assurances proved almost tragically rosy. Two days after that post, more than 188,000 people were ordered to evacuate.

The criticism comes because of who was whispering in the mayor’s ear.

For days prior to the evacuation order, Dahlmeier was being coached – if not outright told what to say – by a Sacramento public relations and lobbying firm hired by the State Water Contractors, a consortium of urban and agricultural water agencies from the San Joaquin Valley, Southern California and the Bay Area that store water behind Oroville Dam. The Feb. 10 post was written by the firm – one of several statements crafted by a PR representative that Dalmeier posted or emailed to reporters during the lead up to the evacuation.

Dahlmeier’s comments dovetailed with what state DWR officials said throughout the crisis. Even in the hours before the evacuation was ordered, DWR assured those below the dam they were in no jeopardy.

The relationship between the mayor and the PR firm has given fresh fuel to critics who’ve long accused DWR of managing the lake for the benefit of south-state water interests and not the safety of those living near the dam.

They say the state’s positive spin – parroted by Dahlmeier – could have gotten people killed had the lake flooded the city. When the evacuation order was issued, thousands were stuck in traffic after they were told they only had a few minutes to escape what officials described as a 30-foot “wall of water” threatening to swamp much of the Sacramento Valley. The evacuation order stood for two days as the DWR blew the bottom of the broken spillway to pieces in a frantic – but eventually successful – effort to lower the lake’s water level below the lip of the dam’s adjacent emergency spillway. Water flowing over that never-before-used structure had nearly washed away the hillside holding back the lake.

“They were putting everybody at a disadvantage by placating them – by, you know, saying ‘Oh, everything is fine.’ ” said Jack Berry, who sits on the Oroville City Council with Dahlmeier. “The Water Contractors shouldn’t even be involved in this, and it’s wrong for the mayor to even be talking to them.”

Dahlmeier said it’s unfair to criticize her. She said she’s an insurance agent by trade – not an expert on dams. She was in Atlanta on a business trip when the crater formed on the spillway Feb. 7. When she saw pictures that showed how grave the situation was, she called the dam experts she knew: her two longtime contacts at DWR and at the water contractors.

She said she demanded the most current information to share with her constituents who were clamoring for accurate news.

“I had a responsibility, in my opinion, to get answers, and I knew who I needed to call,” she said.

As the crisis wore on, Dahlmeier was in daily contact with Ted Craddock, an Oroville project manager at DWR, and Tim Haines, deputy general manager of the State Water Contractors. She accepted Haines’ offer to lend her the services of Alison MacLeod of the firm KP Public Affairs, a Sacramento lobbying and PR firm that has done work for some of the state’s largest water users.

At that moment, MacLeod’s skills crafting public messages were more important than who employed her, Dahlmeier said.

“Did I say, ‘Gee, where does Alison get her paycheck from?’ ” Dahlmeier said. “Is that really what matters at that moment in time?”

The contents of Dahlmeier’s email exchanges were first reported last month by the Chico Enterprise-Record after a local taxpayer group obtained them through a California Public Records Act request. Oroville’s city attorney provided the emails to The Sacramento Bee.

In her emails, Dahlmeier expressed concerns to Craddock and Haines about bogus social media posts and inaccurate news stories fostering fear and confusion among residents hungry for up-to-date information.

“This is why we need to control the media,” she wrote on Feb. 9 to Craddock and Haines after Dahlmeier was emailed a Sacramento radio station’s story that appeared to contain inaccurate information.

Not long after, MacLeod began crafting Facebook posts for Dahlmeier based on information relayed from DWR. She also coached the mayor on what to say during interviews with reporters.

“Good job,” MacLeod wrote Dahlmeier after the mayor had done a radio interview, the day before the evacuation order. “You tried to convey that everything was under control ... If you get any additional media inquiries, let me know and we can plan key points again to a ensure a tight, positive message.”

Reached by phone at KP Public Affairs, MacLeod declined to comment.

She referred inquires to a representative for another PR firm working for the State Water Contractors. The firm, Fiona Hutton & Associates, emailed a one-sentence statement from Jennifer Pierre, the contractors’ general manager.

“As the Oroville events were unfolding rapidly, we and many organizations were trying to be as helpful and responsive as possible given the information we knew at the time,” Pierre said.

Craddock at times was included in emails to and from MacLeod, Dahlmeier and Haines, but DWR spokeswoman Erin Mellon said the state had no role in connecting Dahlmeier with the PR agency.

“I don’t see how DWR is involved in this issue,” Mellon told The Bee in an email.

The mayor’s connection to the Department of Water Resources has put her at odds with other elected officials in Oroville. Tellingly, her name was left off a scathing letter the City Council sent in mid-August to the secretary of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which regulates the dam.

While it accuses the federal agency of not adequately overseeing the dam, the letter is mostly critical of DWR. It demands an explanation for the February crisis, “a full analysis of the impacts of this event to Oroville and the surrounding areas,” and a thorough review of how DWR operates the dam.

Although DWR has held multiple town-hall meetings in the region since February, the letter blames the state agency for not keeping locals apprised of developments surrounding the dam.

“There is already a strong community distrust of DWR due to this event,” the letter says. “A lack of communication and transparency only makes it worse.”

It also suggests that someone other than DWR should operate the dam in the future.

The letter was signed by five of the seven City Council members. Only Dahlmeier and Councilman Scott Thomson didn’t sign.

Oroville and other downstream cities have a long and tense history with the DWR and the State Water Contractors over the lake.

When the dam was proposed in the 1960s, state officials promised Oroville it would become a massive tourist destination. In exchange for taking land off the local tax rolls to flood the lake, the state proposed building tourist attractions, including a monorail for lakeside tours, a massive amphitheater and a major resort – none of which materialized.

More recently, locals have sought to have a greater say in how the lake is managed. Some of their concerns have revolved around safety.

Some downstream cities have spent years trying to get the state to lower Lake Oroville during wet winters to provide more room in the reservoir and to guard against flooding in the Sacramento Valley. The south-state water contractors, who would lose some of their water supplies, have opposed the idea.

Environmental groups and some local governments also have warned since at least 2002 that if Oroville were ever hit by a major flood, water toppling over the emergency spillway would cause serious erosion. The groups pushed to have the hillside lined with concrete, a move opposed by the State Water Contractors, whose member agencies ultimately would have to pay for the upgrade.

Dahlmeier was warned just before the evacuation about potential dangers to the emergency spillway.

On Feb. 9, three days before the hillside below the emergency spillway began to wash away, Dave Steindorf of the advocacy group American Whitewater warned Dahlmeier and other officials about the dangers of letting water cascade down the unlined hillside.

“If it comes to that, the entire hillside under the emergency spillway, at least down to the bedrock, will wash into the diversion pool,” he wrote in an email to Dalhmeier and others, referring to the Feather River channel below the spillway. He said letting water go over the emergency spillway would put “Oroville and the entire Feather River corridor at risk.”

In her response to Steindorf, the mayor said the state had no plans to release water over the emergency spillway at that point. But she didn’t address his overall worries about the risks from the unlined hillside.

Steindorf now says he can’t fault the mayor. After all, she was far from the only one who didn’t heed his concerns. At a DWR media briefing before the evacuation, Steindorf showed up and actually handed out copies of a letter spelling out the threat. Few if any in attendance paid attention.

“She not a dam-safety expert. She’s not even an emergency services expert,” Steindorf said. “She’s just getting fed this stuff from people who supposedly know more than she does, and they’re all saying, ‘It’s OK. It’s fine.’ 

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow