Capitol Alert

Fire-ravaged Paradise water agency faces state ultimatum: Fix your cracked dam spillway

‘I feel like we’re forgotten.’ Here’s what the water problem looks like in Paradise

The Camp Fire's extreme heat has been blamed for a cocktail of chemicals in the Paradise water supply. Here's how the residents of the city were coping with the problem in April 2019.
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The Camp Fire's extreme heat has been blamed for a cocktail of chemicals in the Paradise water supply. Here's how the residents of the city were coping with the problem in April 2019.

Just months after California’s deadliest wildfire laid waste to the town of Paradise, hillside residents face yet another costly and potentially dangerous problem.

State safety officials have downgraded the Magalia Dam on the hill above town to “poor” condition, and have ordered the dam’s owner to make interim repairs by November on the cracked spillway.

It’s the latest in problem for the Paradise Irrigation District, which lost most of its revenue base in the Camp Fire and is still struggling to deliver potable water to its remaining customers. The fire tainted the district’s water supply with the chemical compound benzene, forcing almost all of the few thousand people who’ve returned to Paradise to drink bottled water.

District officials don’t have the estimated several hundred million dollars needed to clean up the water contamination, and are working with U.S. emergency officials on a federal funding plan. They also say they don’t have the money to make state-mandated fixes to the Magalia Dam spillway. They have reached out, however, to U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein to seek federal funding for an alternative approach – to build a new $20 million-plus dam from scratch.

Board member Bill Kellogg said the district’s finances have shrunk to the point that the state is “basically dealing with a prune.”

Magalia Dam, a small century-old structure that’s only 103 feet tall, was already declared seismically weak two decades ago, restricting how much water it could hold.

But the dam’s problems became more acute after Oroville Dam, 30 miles south, suffered a massive crater in its flood-control spillway, triggering the evacuation of 188,000 residents in February 2017. The state Department of Water Resources ordered owners of 93 dams with potentially similar problems, including Magalia, to conduct thorough inspections of their spillways.

After reviewing the Paradise district’s report, state officials said in April that the Magalia spillway needs repairs. “It is our conclusion that the spillway may not perform well during future (water) discharges and a significant spillway rehabilitation project is needed,” said Sharon Tapia, chief of the state water resources dam safety division, in a letter to district officials.

Chris Orrock, a spokesman for the state Department of Water Resources, said Magalia was one of four dams that have been downgraded after the state ordered major inspections following the Oroville crisis. All told, he said, Magalia is one of just 13 dams regulated by the state – out of 1,200 – designated as “poor” or worse.

A “poor” rating suggests a “potential dam safety deficiency,” according to DWR. The only worse rating, “unsatisfactory,” means immediate action must be taken.

The Paradise water district has been struggling financially for years. When it was ordered in 2017 to examine the Magalia spillway, it asked the state for funds to help with the study. The request was turned down.

The Camp Fire brought the little district to the brink of insolvency. By destroying much of Paradise’s homes and businesses, the November fire erased most of the water district’s revenue.

The district is still working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency on a fix for its benzene crisis, in which the organic contaminant was found in numerous water pipes after the Camp Fire. The district has not reached a formal agreement with FEMA on a funding plan.

The district did get a $7 million bailout grant from the state to keep going for one year. The water district had asked for $22 million to keep it afloat for three years.

Kellogg, the board member, said the district has persuaded several lenders to extend loan repayments.

Magalia Dam, which holds back Little Butte Creek, sits on the hill above the Paradise. It serves as a secondary source of drinking water for the town of Paradise. It’s the smaller of the two dams run by the district; the other is Paradise Lake.

The dam has been a worry for decades. A hazard assessment in the 1990s determined the dam was susceptible to failure in an earthquake. State dam officials have since required Paradise water officials to maintain lower levels of water behind the dam as a safety measure.

Much of the spillway chute is “in a severely distressed condition” and suffers from “numerous random cracks,” an engineering consultant said in a report to the Paradise district earlier this month. A portion of the chute isn’t anchored to the bedrock, the consultant added, and there may be “voids” lurking beneath the slabs, further weakening the structure.

State officials gave the Paradise district until Sept. 1 to develop a repair plan and until Nov. 1 to complete interim risk-reduction measures.

Kevin Phillips, manager of the Paradise water district, said he plans to ask those state officials in the next few weeks to give the district time to work a deal with the federal government for funds to abandon the current dam and build a new one just uphill from the existing one.

During a discussion last year of the dam, Phillips said Magalia “is a terrible dam, I agree,” and added that the district may have to “do more than just repair the spillway. We need to repair the whole dam.”

Speaking this week to The Sacramento Bee, Phillips said his agency would rather build a new dam than try to “Band-Aid” the existing substandard structures. “If the state has immediate concerns about the spillway, we can fix,” he said. “We are not going to ignore anything that has immediate impacts to life and safety.”

He said a completely new dam would create a threefold benefit: It would save the cost of temporarily shoring the spillway. It would replace a seismically unsafe dam with a bigger facility with more water storage capacity. And it would allow Butte officials to eliminate a traffic choke point on the fire-prone hillside, by adding more lanes.

Currently, only one two-lane road passes over the dam to allow people living in Magalia to evacuate downhill in the event of another fire, or to allow Paradise residents to evacuate uphill if need be.

Phillips said his agency had early but positive talks with Feinstein’s staff a few weeks ago when several of them visited Paradise.

A Feinstein spokesman said the senator’s office would be willing to discuss the idea further if Paradise brought it a more detailed concept.

Orrock, the DWR spokesman, said a new dam would take at least a decade to build. That’s why it’s important for the Paradise district to undertake interim repairs on the old structure.

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Tony Bizjak has been reporting for The Bee for 30 years. He covers transportation, housing and development and previously was the paper’s City Hall beat reporter.
Dale Kasler covers climate change, the environment, economics and the convoluted world of California water. He also covers major enterprise stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. He joined The Bee in 1996 from the Des Moines Register and graduated from Northwestern University.