Millions of Californians could end up with higher water bills after the Trump administration on Friday announced that federal emergency officials aren’t going to reimburse the state for $306 million in repairs to Oroville Dam stemming from the 2017 spillway crisis.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency said federal taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for problems that existed prior to a massive hole forming in the dam’s concrete spillway in February 2017, eventually prompting the two-day evacuation of 188,000 downstream residents and a $1.1 billion emergency response and repair job.
Oroville Dam – the nation’s tallest – is operated by a state agency, but it was built and maintained using funds from agricultural and urban water agencies that store water at Lake Oroville, such as the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Metropolitan supplies water to more than 19 million people, whose water bills could rise if the federal government decides not to pay. In total, Oroville Dam provides water for 27 million Californians.
Since the 2017 crisis, the state and water contractors such as Metropolitan had hoped the federal government would cover up to 75 percent of the repair costs. So far, the federal government has only agreed to pay about a third of the total bill.
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In a brief statement, Federal Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Brandi Richard said her agency wouldn’t reimburse California for costs related to the “upper gated spillway” because of pre-existing problems on the giant concrete structure.
The state plans to appeal the decision that repairs to the upper spillway aren’t eligible for federal funds.
“We believe otherwise and will work with FEMA to submit additional supporting information through the appeal process,” said Lisa Lien-Mager, a spokeswoman for the California Natural Resources Agency, the parent agency of the dam’s operator, the Department of Water Resources.
The decision suggests the rift is widening between Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration and the White House. President Donald Trump’s administration is also trying to make the state return $2.5 billion in federal funding for the high-speed rail project, and cancel a $928 million federal grant for that project.
FEMA said Friday that did approve another $205 million in funding for the Oroville Dam repairs this week, bringing the total funding so far to $333 million. And it added that it is reviewing requests for additional reimbursements.
But it said the cost of fixing the upper spillway won’t be covered.
“Two separate independent engineering reviews indicate that a variety of problems existed at the dam prior to the February 2017 floods. FEMA’s Public Assistance can only fund work directly linked to the declared disaster, and so the grant assistance request of $306.4 million was not approved for the upper gated spillway,” Richard said in an emailed statement.
Jennifer Pierre of the State Water Contractors, which represents the local agencies that would have to bear the cost if FEMA’s decision stands, said in a prepared statement: “We support (the Department of Water Resources) and recognize the agency has worked tirelessly to protect public safety and to successfully repair the Oroville spillways. We understand that DWR worked directly with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and multiple independent experts to determine the appropriate actions necessary to repair the facilities and ensure the structure could operate as originally intended.
“That is why we support DWR’s decision to appeal the partial FEMA reimbursements. We firmly believe that federally-required repairs to Oroville after a federally-declared emergency should qualify for full federal assistance.”
U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, who represents the Oroville area in Congress, said the Department of Water Resources has itself to blame for FEMA’s decision.
“FEMA’s decision not to fully reimburse DWR for Oroville Dam spillway repairs should not come as a total surprise,” he said in a prepared statement. “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Independent Forensic Report have both cited insufficient maintenance and initial design flaws as playing a part in the failure of the spillway. FEMA has reimbursed the state for eligible emergency repairs, but repairs due to maintenance failures as well as the new structures being built are ineligible for federal reimbursement legally.”
In early 2018 a panel of independent forensic engineers concluded that the Oroville crisis was the result of poor design, construction and maintenance. It cited a “long-term systemic failure.”
The dam’s 3,000-foot-long main spillway fractured in two during a heavy rainstorm in February 2017. Hoping to minimize the damage, dam engineers limited water releases on the spillway. Water levels rose to unprecedented heights, and the dam had to release water from the adjacent emergency spillway, a concrete lip sitting atop an unlined hillside, for the first time ever. A day later engineers spotted dangerous erosion on the hillside and feared the spillway would crumble and release a “wall of water” into the Feather River below. That led to the evacuation.
Fixing the two spillways, which have yet to be used since the repairs, has cost about $1.1 billion.
In response to recent rains, DWR increased releases from the Hyatt Powerplant to 7,000 cubic feet per second from 1,750 cfs two weeks ago. At 9 a.m. Friday, the lake’s level was at 825.91 feet elevation, or 71 percent of capacity. While that’s above the 813 feet needed to operate the spillway, DWR said last week it has no plans to use it anytime soon.
The agency said in a news release Tuesday that “it’s anticipated that some water will seep through the gates onto the spillway as the gates are not designed to be water tight.”