California lawmakers pressed state officials Tuesday on the repair effort at Oroville Dam, demanding to see contract details to make sure the bulk of the work will be completed in time for the next rainy season.
Members of the state Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee, at an hourlong oversight hearing on the Oroville crisis, questioned Secretary John Laird, the head of the Department of Water Resources and Natural Resources, on the specifications of the $275 million contract awarded earlier this month to Kiewit Corp. of Omaha, Neb., to fix the dam’s two damaged spillways.
“Is it written in a way that we’re protected?” asked committee Chairman Robert Hertzberg, questioning whether Kiewit would be assessed penalties if work isn’t completed on time.
Committee Vice Chairman Jeff Stone recalled the bonuses paid to contractors for completing work early on damaged Southern California freeways after the Northridge earthquake and asked if similar incentives were included in Kiewit’s contract.
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Bill Croyle, acting director of DWR, said he didn’t know enough about the specifics of the contract and said a deputy director, Mark Andersen, would have the details.
“We need to have a meeting with him on the contract,” said Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, whose district includes the area around Oroville.
Andersen couldn’t be reached for comment, but Erin Mellon, spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Agency, which oversees DWR, said the contract includes “liquidated damages.” That means Kiewit would suffer financial penalties “for not completing specific portions of work within the specified time frame.”
In an interview after the hearing, Croyle reiterated his prior statements that the two spillways can be fixed by this November, when the next rainy season usually begins. “We’re going to be working very hard to get the whole thing built,” he said.
But state officials acknowledged the likelihood that some of the work will have to wait until next summer. Mellon said the Kiewit contract runs through January 2019.
Even if some of the work lasts into next year, Croyle insisted the Oroville spillways would be functional by November. He noted that the battered main spillway, which fractured in two Feb. 7, was able to release enough water to prevent disaster five days later and has been releasing water sporadically in the weeks that followed to keep reservoir levels down.
“Worst-case scenario, we could continue like we are today,” Croyle said.
Croyle had a somewhat testy exchange with Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Yuba City, who sat in on the hearing. Croyle said the dam’s emergency spillway worked during the height of the emergency – a statement that Gallagher found baffling.
After the main spillway fractured, dam operators temporarily shut the structure down. Water rose so high that for the first time ever it flowed over the emergency spillway, which consists of a concrete lip over an unlined hillside. A day later, as severe erosion on the hill threatened the integrity of the emergency spillway, officials ordered the evacuation of 188,000 downstream residents.
Croyle said the erosion exceeded projections but insisted, “I believe the emergency spillway worked.”