Water & Drought

State now facing cascade of litigation over Oroville Dam

Get closeup view of latest work at Oroville Dam spillway

Crews install rebar for the emergency spillway weir and use giant blades to even out the cut-off-wall as phase 2 of the Oroville Dam site repairs continue on January 31, 2018.
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Crews install rebar for the emergency spillway weir and use giant blades to even out the cut-off-wall as phase 2 of the Oroville Dam site repairs continue on January 31, 2018.

More than 40 farmers and business owners in the Oroville area sued the state Wednesday over the effects of the Oroville Dam crisis, seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.

The giant lawsuit against the California Department of Water Resources was filed by the same law firms representing the city of Oroville in a suit it filed in early January against DWR. It accuses DWR of harboring a “culture of corruption and harassment” that compromised dam safety and led to last February’s near-catastrophe.

The suit says the failure of Oroville’s two flood-control spillways, which prompted the evacuation of 188,000 downstream residents, hurt a variety of businesses, landowners and others. For instance, grocery-bag manufacturer Roplast Industries lost $1.5 million because of lost production time during the evacuation. JEM Farms, a walnut orchard downstream of the dam, suffered $15 million in flooding damage because of dramatic surges of water pouring out of the dam during the crisis. Some of the plaintiffs are farmers as far south as Yolo County.

“Local businesses were hammered by the state’s recklessness. Their losses continue to grow. It is time to correct this injustice,” said Niall McCarthy of Bay Area law firm Cotchett Pitre & McCarthy. A Woodland law firm, Gardner Janes Nakken Hugo and Nolan, is working with the Cotchett firm on the case.

The cascade of litigation was expected. The plaintiffs had filed monetary claims with the state Department of General Services, which is a necessary precursor to suing the state. DGS refused to pay any of the claims, essentially telling the plaintiffs to go to court.

According to the lawsuit, DWR workers engaged in shoddy maintenance practices, which was covered up by supervisors. African-American employees were subjected to racist taunts by co-workers, which further weakened the workplace environment and hurt dam safety, the suit says.

Oroville’s crisis began last Feb. 7, when the main flood-control spillway fractured in two. Five days later, the unpaved hillside beneath the adjacent emergency spillway began to erode severely, sparking fears that the concrete spillway would crumble and unleash a “wall of water.” That prompted the downstream evacuations.

An independent forensic team has concluded that both spillways were inadequately designed and constructed. The problems multiplied because of poor maintenance since the dam opened in 1968, the forensic team said.

The Department of Water Resources posted an update on the project, which is moving along in phase 2 of the repairs, on Dec. 13.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler

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