Bill Croyle, who’s been the sometimes controversial public face of the state’s response to the Oroville Dam emergency, announced his retirement Friday as acting director of the Department of Water Resources.
Croyle, 59, will retire in July, just six months after becoming DWR’s acting director. His replacement is Cindy Messer, the agency’s chief deputy director. She, too, will be acting director.
An engineer who worked nine years at DWR, Croyle was thrust into an uncomfortable spotlight barely a month after taking over as DWR’s director. The February crisis at Oroville forced the temporary evacuation of 188,000 downstream residents, became a worldwide media story and opened the department to criticism of its handling of the situation.
In an interview Friday, Croyle said the Oroville crisis was “both pretty scary but it’s also been pretty amazing to see not just the department staff, the managers come together in a common mission but also our partner agencies. ... In any given disaster emergency-type situation, there is always good that comes out of it.”
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Croyle spent several years working in drought and flood management at DWR, positions that he said helped prepare him to “be able to jump into this situation (at Oroville) with no notice and be able to manage this.”
He said he had been planning to retire last January when he was asked to replace former Director Mark Cowin on an interim basis. He agreed to take the job for six months.
The crisis began after a crater erupted in the dam’s main flood-control spillway Feb. 7. To contain the damage, dam operators curtailed water releases even though Lake Oroville’s levels were rising during a heavy rainstorm. On Feb. 11, water began flowing over the adjacent emergency spillway – a concrete lip perched atop an unlined hillside – for the first time since the dam opened in 1968.
Croyle assured reporters and residents that the emergency spillway would function properly. But a day later, engineers found that the hillside was starting to crumble near the concrete lip. Fearing the spillway would give way, unleashing a “wall of water” on communities below, officials ordered the immediate evacuation. Residents were allowed to return home two days later.
Croyle served as DWR’s chief spokesman for weeks, briefing the media repeatedly at DWR’s regional offices in Oroville, although at times he struggled to explain the department’s actions. At a legislative oversight hearing in April, he said the dam’s much-maligned emergency spillway worked during the emergency – a statement that stunned lawmakers such as Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Yuba City, whose constituents were evacuated in February.
At the hearing, Croyle acknowledged that erosion on the hillside was worse than expected, but he insisted “the emergency spillway worked.”
In a statement Friday, Resources Secretary John Laird said, “California is extremely fortunate to have had Bill at the helm of DWR this year, especially during the Oroville emergency.”
Messer has served in a variety of jobs at DWR, and has worked at the Delta Stewardship Council and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy.