Water & Drought

‘Culture of corruption’ cited as Oroville sues state over dam crisis

The city of Oroville sued the California Department of Water Resources on Wednesday over the Oroville Dam crisis, accusing the state agency of mismanaging the dam and knowingly performing inadequate maintenance on its main flood-control spillway.

In a blistering lawsuit filed in Butte County Superior Court, the city said DWR encouraged a “culture of corruption” in which supervisors let underlings get away with shoddy maintenance. In addition, African American employees were subjected to a hostile work environment, including the placing of a noose in a conference room, all of which “undermined the maintenance and safety of the dam,” the suit maintains.

The lawsuit, filed on the city’s behalf by the well-known Bay Area law firm of Cotchett Pitre & McCarthy and Woodland law firm Gardner, Janes, Nakken, Hugo & Nolan, also suggests DWR disposed of a large chunk of concrete from the failed spillway – a piece of material that likely showed evidence of improper maintenance.

“Important maintenance projects were delayed or never completed, and substandard supplies were used to address vulnerabilities in the dam’s armored spillway,” the suit says. “Workers who voiced concerns were silenced by DWR management.”

The suit says DWR neglected dam safety because of “undue influence” by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and other State Water Project member agencies that store water behind the dam and pay for its operation. This influence, which began when Lester Snow was DWR director, contributed to postponement or cancellation of maintenance projects, the suit says.

Snow, who ran DWR from 2004 to 2011, denied that water contractors persuaded him to compromise dam safety. “I’m kind of shocked by that (allegation),” he said in an interview.

Erin Mellon, a spokeswoman for DWR, said the agency wouldn’t comment on pending litigation. Previously the state has said it never neglected dam safety but is revamping its inspection practices to ensure that a spillway failure like Oroville’s never happens again.

The suit says the city suffered in numerous ways, including damage to roadways, costs to evacuate citizens and increased law enforcement costs. It doesn’t put a price tag on the city’s damages, however.

Oroville’s crisis began Feb. 7, when a giant crack appeared in the dam’s main spillway as a rainstorm rolled into the region. As the reservoir filled up, water poured over the never-before-used emergency spillway, which rests atop an unlined hillside. The hillside began eroding, and law enforcement officials ordered the immediate evacuation of 188,000 downstream residents.

The lawsuit repeats many of the charges made by the independent forensic team hired by DWR to investigate the February crisis: that the spillway was designed by an inexperienced engineer and was poorly maintained in the decades that followed. The forensic team said the spillway was built on crumbly rock and wasn’t adequately anchored in place. In addition, DWR disregarded warnings that the hillside below the emergency spillway was in danger of eroding, the forensic team said.

“For decades, DWR had notice of the vulnerabilities of the main spillway and the emergency spillway,” the suit said. “Instead of taking action, DWR buried its head in the sand.”

The city of Oroville was one of hundreds of local governments, businesses and others that filed monetary claims with the state Department of General Services for costs relating to the dam crisis. The state has rejected all of the claims, prompting plaintiffs to take the state to court.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler

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