Dan Walters

Oroville Dam secrecy helps further erode trust for big state projects

Whitewater flows as damaged Oroville Dam spillway is reopened

After being closed to allow for assessment, repairs and dredging o the Feather River below, the Oroville Dam main spillway again is funneling water from fast-filling Lake Oroville. Releases roared down the still-compromised concrete chute on Frida
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After being closed to allow for assessment, repairs and dredging o the Feather River below, the Oroville Dam main spillway again is funneling water from fast-filling Lake Oroville. Releases roared down the still-compromised concrete chute on Frida

When Oroville Dam’s main spillway began crumbling in February and an auxiliary spillway couldn’t safely handle immense flows from a brim-full lake, California officials faced a full-blown disaster.

The Department of Water Resources and other state and local agencies acted quickly to protect hundreds of thousands of residents along the swollen Feather River.

Fearing a potential collapse of the emergency spillway that would have sent a killer surge down the Feather, they ordered evacuations, reopened the damaged main spillway to relieve pressure and, minute by minute, avoided disaster.

Those who made the critical decisions deserve the public’s thanks for a job well done.

That said, as attention rightfully turned to the causes of what happened and the repairs that must be made, those same officials have been less than exemplary.

It’s painfully obvious, and confirmed by independent examinations, that Oroville’s main spillway was poorly designed and constructed, and perhaps poorly maintained, and the emergency spillway’s design flaws, leading to its near-collapse, had been pointed out a decade earlier but ignored when Oroville Dam was re-licensed.

But the Department of Water Resources retreated behind a wall of secrecy about what went wrong, claiming – incredibly – that it was a matter of national security.

Really? A spillway is a slab of reinforced concrete, not a nuclear power plant that could be attacked by terrorists.

Finally, facing heavy criticism, DWR allowed partial release of documents on the eve of a state Senate hearing Tuesday.

As it turned out, the hearing was largely a lovefest as DWR Director Bill Croyle and his boss, Resources Secretary John Laird, faced only mild questioning, even from legislators representing the affected area.

Committee chairman Bob Hertzberg, D-Los Angeles, said he wanted to know “what did you know and when did you know it?” but the hour of friendly banter didn’t really tell us anything we didn’t know already.

“The dam is safe, the main spillway is impaired,” Croyle said, saying initial repairs would cost $275 million, with more later to fully restore the spillway to the capacity it was supposed to have, but didn’t.

The subliminal message from Croyle and Laird was “trust us, we know what we are doing.”

But should we? Clearly someone screwed up badly a half-century ago when the dam and its spillways were built and we should know who and why. And Oroville is another example of California’s tarnished record in recent decades of building and maintaining major infrastructure.

A classic example is the replacement of the eastern third of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge that took decades to complete, cost four times the original estimate and experienced numerous construction flaws that officials tried to hide.

“Shit happens,” Gov. Jerry Brown said when asked about what went wrong on the bridge.

So we should feel confident about boring twin water tunnels beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and building a statewide bullet train system?

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