The Public Eye

‘A once in a lifetime opportunity.’ Who made money off the Oroville Dam crisis?

Oroville Dam: Who's making the money?

Dozens of construction contractors, engineering firms and others have made big money fixing Oroville Dam.
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Dozens of construction contractors, engineering firms and others have made big money fixing Oroville Dam.

The helicopters alone cost more than $100,000 a day at one point. Weeks of dredging debris ran to more than $22 million. And on the day after the massive evacuation, as the crisis was peaking, the state spent $3,902 on breakfasts and lunches for emergency workers.

The fracture of Oroville Dam’s main flood-control spillway created a near-catastrophe, spawned multiple investigations and left lawmakers and locals grumbling about the state’s stewardship of the structure. One group isn’t complaining, though: the dozens of concrete and gravel contractors, trucking firms, engineering consultants and others that have been paid millions to help the state clean up the mess.

“It was a tremendous opportunity for us … a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Jeff Lund of Lund Construction Co. in North Highlands, which helped excavate debris from the river channel beneath the crumpled spillway. Lund said his firm was paid about $5 million for its work at Oroville.

Well over $400 million will have been spent by the time Oroville’s facilities are restored. The single biggest jackpot belongs to Kiewit Corp. of Omaha, Neb., the construction colossus that won the $275 million contract to repair the battered spillway over the next two years.

Kiewit’s big payout represents only a fraction of the financial windfall created by the Oroville crisis. Thousands of pages of invoices and receipts submitted to the state Department of Water Resources, released to The Sacramento Bee under a Public Records Act request, provide a vivid picture of how the 4-month-old emergency has generated work for all manner of companies, many of them from Northern California.

A Marysville contractor, Mathews Readymix, supplied $4.1 million worth of concrete over a five-week stretch. Bud Line Trucking of Sacramento was paid more than $100,000 for hauling equipment in February and March. Wolfpack Wood Recycling, a tiny firm from Cottonwood in Shasta County, made $217,000 grinding trees in March. Towill Inc., a Concord mapping and surveying company, received four contracts totaling $167,000 to produce aerial images of the dam site from helicopters and drones.

The bills came in large and small. On Feb. 14, two days after the emergency spillway nearly failed, PJ Helicopters of Red Bluff made $129,483 airlifting rock and concrete to the stricken dam site in a pair of Black Hawks. That same day, SpecWest Concrete Systems of Sacramento spent $312 on safety glasses and $146 for protective earmuffs, according to invoices submitted to the state.

Fixing Oroville Dam has been a minor godsend for the region’s construction workers, who ordinarily would have been idled in winter and early spring.

“There’s a lot of hours, and our members live and die on hours worked,” said Ron Roman of Operating Engineers Local 3, whose union hall in Yuba City supplied about 200 heavy-equipment operators and other workers to the site during the height of the emergency. “It’s been an incredible amount of work, really.”

Over the longer term, the crisis could be a mixed blessing for the region’s economy. Tourism could suffer because the repairs will shut down the largest boat launch area at Lake Oroville for the next two summers. At the same time, the surge of construction workers and others tromping through Oroville is creating “this little boomlet” for hotels and restaurants, said David Gallo, economics professor emeritus at Chico State University.

Gallo estimated the crisis will generate about 200 jobs in the area’s hospitality sector. That should provide a modest boost in a community where unemployment stands at 5.6 percent, or nearly a full percentage point above the statewide average.

At the family-owned Wagon Wheel grocery market, about three miles from the dam, sales have jumped about 30 percent. On Feb. 13, the day after the evacuation was ordered, the store delivered $3,902 worth of breakfasts and lunches to the state’s main contractor on the emergency, Syblon Reid Construction of Folsom, according to invoices filed with the state.

Business has slowed since then, but the Wagon Wheel still gets a steady stream of construction workers and engineers.

“You see these guys all day long, every day,” said Pat Butler, who owns the store with his brother Tom. “It’s just a continual influx of those orange vests every day.”

The work posed logistical challenges for practically everyone. Pat Butler texted former Wagon Wheel employees to help with the assembly line needed to prepare meals during the worst of the crisis. At the other end of the spectrum was the task facing the Dutra Group of San Rafael, which was hired to oversee dredging of the badly clogged river channel beneath the spillway.

The river had to be cleared so the dam’s power plant, a critical portal for releasing water, could be restarted. Dutra’s 100 or so employees had to navigate mountains of debris and a host of unknowns.

“What were the depths? How many large rocks were there that would impede barge and boat traffic?” said Harry Stewart, Dutra’s chief operating officer. “These were essentially uncharted waters.”

Dutra made $22.1 million through the end of April, according to state records. The other big contractor on the emergency, Syblon Reid, billed the state $49 million, including sums paid to subcontractors. Syblon’s task was to oversee practically every aspect of the recovery effort, according to the company’s website. Company officials didn’t return calls seeking comment for this story.

Around $130 million has been spent so far on emergency work. That figure is expected to grow to something less than $200 million, said Erin Mellon, spokeswoman of the state Natural Resources Agency. That’s down from an earlier estimate of $274 million. But it doesn’t include the $275 million that Kiewit will earn over the next two years on the permanent repairs.

DWR has been footing the bill to this point, and the state has lined up a $500 million line of credit to deal with Oroville costs. Eventually the state expects the Federal Emergency Management Agency to reimburse California for a major portion of the expenses, as part of President Donald Trump’s official disaster declaration in April. Costs not covered by the feds are likely to be shouldered by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and other agencies whose water is stored behind the dam.

For some of the big contractors, working at Oroville has been nothing out of the ordinary. PJ Helicopters, for instance, had plenty of experience providing aerial support for Cal Fire before it got called to Oroville.

“That’s the type of work we do,” said Dave Gunsauls, the Red Bluff company’s chief executive. “When an emergency happens, you go take care of it.”

Others remain more than a little dazed by the Oroville operation, like Dennis Tackett, operator of a one-man water-hauling business in Galt.

Tackett drove his 4,000-gallon water truck almost daily to Oroville, where he helped dampen down the dust clouds kicked up by the helicopters ferrying materials to the spillway site.

“It was a crazy busy job,” Tackett said. “I was honored to be a part of something so big and to be called to be there to help put the pieces together.”

His billings for February and March totaled $36,935.

Controlled blasting continues on Oroville Dam's lower spillway as the upper spillway's walls are brought down one piece at a time.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler

Dollars big and small

A sampling of the charges submitted to the state Department of Water Resources for work done at Oroville Dam. These examples don’t necessarily reflect all the work performed by these contractors.

  • PJ Helicopters, Red Bluff: $522,517 for aerial support, Feb. 13-17.
  • Sierra Silica Resources, Oroville: $174,281 for bags of basalt, Feb. 17.
  • Safety Management Systems, Lafayette, La.: $304,303 for consulting services, February and March.
  • Wagon Wheel, Oroville: $2,500 for lunches Feb. 12, $3,902 for breakfasts and lunches Feb. 13.
  • Taylor Heavy Hauling, Roseville: $2,600 for equipment deliveries, Feb. 14.
  • Syblon Reid Construction, Folsom: $49.4 million for general contracting, February through April.

Source: California Department of Water Resources

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