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Walnuts, horses and haircuts – these people say the state’s handling of the Oroville Dam crisis cost them millions

Fly down the Oroville dam spillway as repair work continues in early August

Kiewit continues to pour roller compacted concrete in the void near the lower spillway and conventional concrete to prepare the spillway's foundation, part of the Lake Oroville spillways recovery project.
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Kiewit continues to pour roller compacted concrete in the void near the lower spillway and conventional concrete to prepare the spillway's foundation, part of the Lake Oroville spillways recovery project.

A hairdresser demanded $75,000, arguing that the Oroville Dam crisis permanently scared off customers and ruined his business. The city of Gridley, 22 miles downstream, said it’s owed $354,000 for evacuation costs and damages to its boat dock. A horse breeder sought $14,000 to pay for the cost of relocating more than two dozen Arabians. Farmers as far away as Yolo County say they lost tens of millions of dollars worth of trees because of high water flowing out of the dam.

A total of 92 claims have been filed against the state of California demanding compensation for the February emergency at Oroville Dam, state officials said Friday. More are certain to flood in as the Aug. 11 deadline set by the state approaches. Such claims are a necessary first step in filing a lawsuit against the state, although if the state agrees to pay there’s no need for litigation over the emergency, which prompted the two-day evacuation of 188,000 residents.

“We had 11 (claims) at the beginning of July, and it’s skyrocketed,” said spokeswoman Monica Hassan of the state Department of General Services, which is handling the claims.

A list released by DGS showed claims totaling $1.17 billion. However, that includes a $1 billion claim filed on behalf of “all affected parties” owning land along Northern California rivers where flows were affected by sudden water releases from Oroville. That claim, filed by a Woodland lawyer named James Nolan, added that actual damage amounts aren’t yet available.

So far the state hasn’t agreed to pay out for any of the claims.

The case that’s received the most attention so far is a $15 million claim filed earlier this week by JEM Farms and Chandon Ranch, a Butte County farm. It claimed that 21 acres of walnut trees were wiped out by surges on the Feather River caused by rapid fluctuations in water flowing out of the dam’s battered flood-control spillway.

Other farmers also say their property was damaged by fluctuations in water releases from the dam. Yolo Land Trust, a nonprofit that controls thousands of acres along the Sacramento River, says it lost nearly 15,000 walnut trees because of “abrupt and erratic releases of high volumes of water” from Oroville. It said the lost trees were worth around $19 million, and it’s seeking triple damages under state law, for a total claim of $57.6 million.

Ricardo Garcia of Garcia Farms Inc., which leases a portion of Yolo Land’s property, said he and his employees are trying to salvage what they can from the damaged trees but believe their productivity will be diminished.

“Some aren’t ‘dead dead’ but they’re severely damaged,” Garcia said. “It’s almost like being in a major car accident. You’re not going to come back 100 percent.”

RB_Oroville_Claims_1
Walnut grower Ricardo Garcia in his orchard in West Sacramento on Friday, August 4, 2017. He is one of many farmers who say they suffered looses due to the huge volume of water released from the Oroville Dam recently. Randall Benton rbenton@sacbee.com

Nolan, the lawyer for Garcia, Yolo Land and several other farms along the Sacramento River, said he expects the state to reject all the claims “out of an abundance of caution” due to the sheer volume being filed and the huge dollar amounts. He expects lawsuits galore in cases that could stretch out years.

“If people do file suit, then probably all of those cases are going to be consolidated,” he said, “and then it’s going to be a battle over liability first, and then you go from there.”

Besides individual damage claims, the state also expects to spend more than $500 million responding to the emergency and repairing the dam’s two damaged spillways. However, the state believes most of those costs eventually will be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Whatever costs aren’t covered by FEMA are expected to be shouldered by the downstream water agencies that store water at Lake Oroville.

Of the claim forms reviewed by The Sacramento Bee, most argue that the state is responsible for the emergency because it ignored warning signs about the condition of the spillway. A forensic team has said the spillway emergency was likely caused by a variety of factors, including design and physical problems that had been lurking for years, although the team’s final report hasn’t been released.

In discussing the crisis, state officials have repeatedly cited the extraordinarily powerful storms that soaked the Feather River area as the dam’s spillway cracked and water levels at Lake Oroville rose to unprecedented levels. J. Clark Kelso, a professor at the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law, said the state might be able to use the storms as a defense against litigation, although a plaintiff’s attorney would probably be able to pierce that defense.

The state has rejected seven claims already, including those from Yuba County and the cities of Oroville and Gridley. Hassan wouldn’t comment on specific claims but said her agency will reject claims based on merit or if they’re considered too complicated to handle through the state’s Government Claims Program. Those who have had claims rejected have six months to sue the state in court.

Gridley’s claim, for instance, was dismissed because it involved “complex issues that are beyond the scope of analysis and legal interpretation typically undertaken by the (program),” according to a letter sent to Gridley’s lawyer last month by DGS. “Claims involving complex issues are best determined by the courts.”

Kelso said he expects DGS to reject most of the claims. “Most of these are going to wind up in court,” he said.

However, Kelso said DGS is more likely to pay for property damage than for lost business revenue. Lost revenue “is a fairly indirect type of injury,” and the state would have a stronger defense, Kelso said.

Among those getting rejected is Direct Surplus Sales Inc., which operates an army surplus apparel store and other businesses on the outskirts of Oroville. The company sought more than $200,000 for flooding around its property and lost sales revenue, “as there are still questions from outsiders as to the safety of the area,” according to its claim.

Cosmetologist Justis Eisenhour, who filed a claim for lost business, also got rejected.

“My clients are no longer willing to commute to Oroville to have their services done because of the structural integrity of the dam and the spillway as well of the national media coverage of the incident,” Eisenhour wrote. “It is clear that the Department of Water Resources knew about the damage at the Oroville Dam and spillway and did nothing to repair it.”

The Butte County Board of Supervisors filed a claim for at least $25,000 for emergency costs, including the expense of relocating inmates, loss of sales tax revenue and damage to county roads. The status of the county’s claim wasn’t immediately clear, however, and the county’s claim wasn’t included in the list released Friday by the state.

An inmate at the Butte County jail, Marcus Yocum, filed a claim for more than $25,000 over the distress he said he suffered when the jail was evacuated. He said he was locked in a van for 12 hours with fourteen other men and was “made to urinate in a bucket.”

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said Yocum’s allegation will be investigated. “Given the information we had on Feb. 12, we were facing an extraordinary set of circumstances and were concerned about the potential loss of life of all citizens of our county, including inmates in our jail. Those extraordinary circumstances dictated that we undertook the unprecedented evacuation of the entire facility and we were doing the best we could under the circumstances we were facing,” Honea said in an email to The Bee.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler

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