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Now $870 million, price of Oroville Dam crisis jumps by a third

Oroville Dam spillway repair continues as crews install rebar in phase 2 of the project

The Department of Water Resources posted an update on the project, which is moving along in phase 2 of the repairs, on Dec. 13.
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The Department of Water Resources posted an update on the project, which is moving along in phase 2 of the repairs, on Dec. 13.

Oroville Dam’s battered flood-control spillways have been largely rebuilt, but the cost of last February’s near-disaster keeps rising. On Friday, state officials put the total price tag at $870 million.

The latest figure from the California Department of Water Resources represents a 32 percent increase from DWR’s estimate in October, when the cost was pegged at approximately $660 million.

State officials insist the climbing price tag is not from unexpected cost overruns. Instead, DWR spokeswoman Erin Mellon said the agency has finally been able to estimate the cost of recovery work that includes removal of debris from the Feather River channel below the dam; relocation of power transmission lines; staff time and other work that’s been undertaken since last winter’s crisis. Those costs came to $210 million.

“So it’s not a jump in costs at all,” she said.

Of the total $870 million cost, the largest expense is the reconstruction of the dam’s two badly damaged flood-control spillways. Mellon said the reconstruction work, which is proceeding in two phases and is expected to be completed this fall, is expected to cost $500 million. That estimate hasn’t changed since last October.

In the initial days of the crisis, before 188,000 residents had to be evacuated, DWR officials said it might cost $200 million to fix Oroville. The price has more than quadrupled since then.

Mellon said costs could change again, but major new expenses aren’t expected beyond the $870 million. “Right now this is the number that we’re looking at for the total,” she said on a conference call with reporters.

One of the DWR’s fiercest critics, state Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Tehama, isn’t buying DWR’s explanation that the costs haven’t risen since October.

“They’re certainly inventing a new math,” said Nielsen, who represents the region that evacuated during the crisis.

State officials expect the Federal Emergency Management Agency to reimburse California for up to 75 percent of the crisis’s costs, with the rest to be covered by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and other water agencies that store water behind the nation’s tallest dam. That would put federal taxpayers on the hook for $652 million.

So far FEMA has agreed to pay 75 percent of the first $115.9 million in costs submitted by the state, totaling $86.9 million, according to Mellon.

However, state officials have said FEMA reimbursements could decline if the federal agency determines that the emergency was caused by improper maintenance. “Is there a maintenance issue here? Because they’re not going to cover that,” then-DWR director Bill Croyle, who has since retired, told a legislative committee last spring.

An independent forensic team concluded earlier this month that the dam’s main flood-control spillway failed in part because of poor maintenance.

Asked about the possibility of getting turned down by FEMA for additional dollars, Mellon said, “We’re going to continue submitting our costs to FEMA until they tell us otherwise.”

Nielsen said he doesn’t think federal taxpayers should have to pay the bulk of the costs for a failure he places squarely on the shoulders of the DWR and the powerful water agencies that store water behind the dam. Known as the State Water Contractors, the largest of which serve Silicon Valley and Southern California, these agencies are responsible for upkeep and maintenance costs.

“The federal government is not ... (responsible) for it all being screwed up like it has been for decades,” Nielsen said. “The federal government is not the reason they didn’t fix anything.”

Jerry Quinn, a Sacramento consultant who helps local governments get FEMA dollars, said the state shouldn’t have have a problem collecting the full 75 percent reimbursement. If FEMA cites the deficiencies reported by the forensic team as a reason for withholding money, DWR can argue that federal regulators had also inspected the dam over the years and failed to uncover problems with the spillways, said Quinn, of Gerard J. Quinn & Associates.

Victor Inge, a FEMA spokesman, said it’s too early to say how the federal agency will respond to the latest requests for reimbursement.

DWR officials said a few problems have emerged with the reconstruction work performed so far. Of the more than 200 concrete slabs that have been placed on the main spillway, three have “minor surface imperfections” and might have to be replaced, said Ted Craddock, the agency’s assistant deputy director.

Oroville’s crisis began when the main spillway fractured in two last Feb. 7 in a heavy rainstorm. DWR officials limited water releases to control the damage. That allowed reservoir levels to rise and water to flow over the adjacent emergency spillway, a concrete lip atop an unpaved hillside, for the first time ever. When the hillside began eroding badly, threatening to dump uncontrolled amounts of water from the lake, officials ordered the emergency evacuation of 188,000 downstream residents.

Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Yuba City, said he’s less concerned about who ends up ultimately paying for the costs, so long as the work is completed correctly and his constituents below the dam are safe.

“The big thing for us whatever that needs to be done to put that dam in a safe working condition is what needs to be done,” he said.

Separately, federal regulators Friday told owners of more than 500 dams nationwide to read the forensic report explaining the causes of the Oroville crisis. “The report concludes that flaws in the Oroville Dam Spillway existed since construction that were missed by the owner, regulators, and consultants,” officials with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission wrote in a letter to dam owners. “It is very clear that just because a project has operated successfully for a long period of time does not guarantee that it will continue to do so.”

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler

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