Joyce Terhaar

Dear California water officials: After Oroville Dam scare, why should we trust you?

We in Northern California know many things about Oroville Dam we likely didn’t know before a near failure of its emergency spillway Feb. 12 grabbed our attention.

It’s the tallest dam in the country. It is California’s second-largest reservoir. It holds way more water than anyone wants to think about rushing at their home – in technical terms, 3.5 million acre-feet, or enough to cover 3.5 million acres one foot deep. In nontechnical terms, enough to kill anyone in its path.

Most important: In its current shape, it’s just not safe enough, and Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration is using a law intended to stop terrorism to keep details of its repair plans secret.

Part of the region watched from a relative position of safety when officials told nearly 200,000 people to flee their homes. A spillway failure wasn’t failure of the entire dam. And experts told us such a sudden failure would blow out levees immediately below the dam, endangering residents of Oroville and nearby communities but spilling remaining water into the countryside before the flow reached Sacramento.

Yet no one in this region of about 2.7 million people can afford to be complacent about repairs to Oroville Dam. It affects too many lives, too many homes and too many businesses.

To truly pay attention, you need information. Yet, as The Bee’s Ryan Sabalow and Dale Kasler reported Tuesday, Brown’s administration denied public access to records that would tell us what led to the near failure of the emergency spillway. We learned Thursday that we might get some documents but key information would be redacted. All the information is important, because experts say those records could guide dam repairs.

Sabalow and Kasler asked for quite a few other documents, too. Inspection reports filed with the federal government. Memos or reports describing erosion issues prior to the emergency. Emails involving the Governor’s Office. Those are documents we would routinely request when we take on a story of this import. Our goal is to explain what happened and why – and how our public officials plan to address it.

These public records would enable accountability journalism that might reflect negatively on public employees. We understand that is strong motivation to keep them private. A Bee story on March 23, for instance, first reported that dam repairs couldn’t be completed before the next rainy season, even though officials from the Department of Water Resources had been asserting they would. That story was based on a document published online by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. We asked DWR spokeswoman Lauren Bisnett about the discrepancy; she said the agency expected to have a “fully functional” spillway in time for next winter’s storms.

An outside expert asked to review the document for The Bee said he was surprised the dam spillway didn’t fail decades ago given “gross and obvious” design problems described by the state’s consultants. The Bee’s story said consultants described troubling amounts of water flowing from underneath the structure and dangerous gaps underneath the foundation.

Acting DWR Director Bill Croyle later told The Bee that the report never should have been made public, and that DWR will ensure future consultant reports stay sealed. It begs the question – what exactly should we not have known? That DWR was not realistic when it said repairs would be done by next winter? Or that this is a dangerous situation?

DWR has defended its decision to keep private the bid documents circulating among four firms bidding on the repair work. That means the details of this multimillion-dollar public repair will be kept behind closed doors, whether paid for by taxpayers or ratepayers.

The repairs to Oroville Dam arguably are the most consequential infrastructure work in California this year. They will be challenging because the dam and its spillway need to be strengthened enough, and quickly, to ensure safety next winter. It’s also clear from just one public document that repairs will be challenging because the structure itself is seriously flawed, built to outdated standards.

Despite broad public interest, Brown’s administration is using federal security regulations designed to protect us from terrorism to keep key documents private. It is a convenient and giant loophole given the true danger here is from Mother Nature and officials who have not moved quickly enough to ensure Oroville Dam is safe. Given the serious nature of February’s near failure, the fair question for the public to ask now is this: Why should we trust state officials to do this work with little public scrutiny?

Joyce Terhaar: 916-321-1004, @jterhaar

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