Water & Drought

Oroville Dam crisis prompts $51 billion lawsuit

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.

The state got hit with another lawsuit over the Oroville Dam emergency, and this one is enormous.

Butte County’s district attorney sued the Department of Water Resources on Wednesday for the environmental damage created by last February’s crisis. In particular, District Attorney Michael Ramsey said DWR should have to pay between $34 billion and $51 billion for the tons of concrete, rock and other debris that fell into the Feather River below the dam.

Ramsey filed the suit on behalf of “the People of the State of California,” according to court documents.

Oroville Dam’s main flood-control spillway fractured in two last February, with the resulting debris cascading into the river channel. Tons of additional rock and other material fell into the river when the unpaved hillside beneath the dam’s emergency spillway washed away.

The state has already been sued by business owners and area governments over the havoc caused by the spillway crisis, which sparked the evacuation of 188,000 downstream residents. Several farmers are seeking millions for damages to orchards caused by surges in water from the dam. The Butte DA’s lawsuit, however, appears to be the first one focused on the debris that went into the Feather River.

The suit says the river was inundated by “concrete, lime, slag and substances and material deleterious to fish, plant life, mammals and bird life.” It seeks $10 for every pound of material dumped into the water.

DWR spokeswoman Erin Mellon said the agency wouldn’t comment on pending litigation.

However, in a lengthy report DWR submitted last month to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, agency officials acknowledged that the sediment dumped into the river created “potentially adverse effects” on the river’s fish population, including endangered steelhead and Chinook salmon. Fish also were hurt by the sudden shutoff of water releases from the main spillway, which abruptly dropped water levels in the river. As many as 346,000 juvenile salmon, for instance, may have been stranded, the report says.

The report added that DWR worked quickly to rescue fish at a nearby hatchery, and eventually dredged most of the sediment from the river. About 90 percent of the 2.2 million cubic yards of debris was removed by Nov. 1, the report said.

In an interview, Ramsey said the removal of much of the sediment could partially offset the damages but wouldn’t eliminate them completely. “The damage is done,” he said.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler

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