The amount of money Donald Trump’s administration reimburses California for repairs to Oroville Dam could depend on whether the state properly maintained the dam’s spillway prior to it crumbling this winter, a state water official told lawmakers Thursday.
“Was this deferred maintenance?” Bill Croyle, the acting director of the state Department of Water Resources, told members of the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee. “Is there a maintenance issue here because they’re not going to cover that. If it’s an emergency response, they’re going to cover.”
Croyle and two other state officials frustrated some of the lawmakers at the oversight hearing because they declined to speculate on whether the state indeed allowed maintenance woes to fester.
Instead, the state officials deferred to a panel of independent experts that the state has hired to conduct a forensic analysis of the spillway problems that prompted the two-day evacuation of 188,000 residents below the dam. The panel’s findings are still pending.
The forensic team’s final report won’t be issued until the fall, though the state released a short memo Wednesday outlining 24 possible causes for the spillway developing a huge crater in its center on Feb. 7. Several of the possible failings the forensic team outlined in the memo were related to inadequate maintenance.
“They’re going to ask all those questions,” said David Gutierrez, the retired head of DWR’s Division of Safety of Dams, whom the agency has hired as a consultant. “I think we should probably let them finish that analysis and figure that out.”
The refusal to get into specifics prompted a tense exchange with one lawmaker.
Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Yuba City, wanted Croyle and Gutierrez to discuss maintenance problems, such as trees growing too close to the spillway, that state inspectors have noted in past reports.
Outside experts have said tree roots may have clogged a drainage system on the spillway, allowing water to undermine the structure.
The forensic team also noted roots as a possible cause of the failure in Wednesday’s memo.
“I’m not asking the forensic team,” Gallagher testily told Gutierrez when he repeatedly deferred to the forensic team’s findings, still months away. “I’m asking the Department of Water Resources.”
Croyle said members of the Federal Emergency Management Agency are touring the dam, and the state shared records with the federal government this week.
FEMA spokesman Victor Inge said his agency is working with the state to try to figure out whether February’s storms or pre-existing problems caused most of the spillway damage.
FEMA doesn’t “cover damage that occurred prior to the incident,” Inge said.
California officials have asked the federal government to pay up to 75 percent of the ongoing costs of the repair and recovery efforts. The Trump administration approved a disaster declaration that would make the state eligible for millions of dollars in emergency funding through the end of May, but no money has been disbursed yet.
State officials say the Southern California and Bay Area water agencies that store water in Lake Oroville will have to cover the costs the federal government doesn’t pay.
While funding gets sorted out, the state has borrowed up to $500 million in the hopes it will be reimbursed. Kiewit Corp., of Omaha, has won a $275.4 million contract for the repairs, which are expected to take two years.