Company that made Folsom Dam safer lands job of fixing Oroville Dam

The company that built one of greater Sacramento’s most important flood-control projects in years will fix the damaged spillways at Oroville Dam, site of a near catastrophe two months ago.

Kiewit Corp. of Omaha, Neb., beat two competitors for the right to repair the Oroville spillways, whose problems triggered the evacuation of 188,000 residents in February amid fears of massive flooding. The California Department of Water Resources announced late Monday that Kiewit will be paid $275.4 million for the project, which is expected to take two years to complete.

Kiewit has considerable experience with dam projects, including the decadelong, $900 million upgrade of Folsom Dam. Although Kiewit didn’t do all of the work, it built one of the main pieces: the $255 million auxiliary spillway scheduled to open this fall. The new spillway will sit 50 feet lower on the wall of the dam, enabling operators to release water sooner from Folsom Lake as major storms roll in.

The spillway will make Folsom “able to handle a much larger flood storm event and pass it safely through the levee system downstream,” said Rick Johnson, executive of the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency, which helped fund the project. The Folsom upgrade is part of a multibillion-dollar effort to improve flood safety in Sacramento, considered the second most vulnerable city in America after New Orleans.

Founded in 1884, Kiewit has built a plethora of major projects, from hotels to tunnels to power plants.

“They did a good job at Folsom,” said Joe Countryman, a retired engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “They can handle the job.”

Oroville’s main spillway cracked in two on Feb. 7 during a heavy rainstorm, prompting dam operators to reduce outflows as they contemplated repairs. Five days later, as the lake filled up and water flowed over the nearby emergency spillway for the first time ever, officials ordered a mass evacuation when they feared the emergency structure would fail because of erosion on the hillside just below the concrete lip. The evacuation was rescinded two days later.

Repairs are expected to begin at Oroville in late May or early June. Fixing the two spillways will be so complicated that the project won’t be completely finished until sometime in 2018. DWR officials have said, however, that they expect the first year’s worth of repairs will leave the structures serviceable for the upcoming rainy season.

Kiewit beat out Barnard Ames JV, an affiliate of Barnard Construction Co. of Bozeman, Mont., which offered to do the job for $277 million; and Oroville Dam Constructors, a joint venture between Teichert Construction of Sacramento and Granite Construction of Watsonville, which bid $344 million.

All of the bids were higher than DWR’s internal estimate of $231 million.

Granite Construction also worked on the Folsom Dam upgrade, a sign that the contractors capable of handling big dam projects make up a fairly small fraternity. “It takes some specialized equipment and some specialized skills,” Johnson said. “It’s not a large group that can do this work.”

Kiewit officials declined comment Tuesday, referring questions to the state.

State officials have said they expect customers of the State Water Project to pay for the repairs, although they intend to ask the Federal Emergency Management Agency for financial help. Lake Oroville is California’s second-largest reservoir and the linchpin of the State Water Project. The SWP’s largest customer is the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which serves 19 million customers.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler