Joyce Terhaar

Angry public, insistent media uncloaking Oroville Dam repair secrecy

State water officials told The Sacramento Bee that they want a do-over on how they communicate with the public about Oroville Dam.

After denying public records requests from The Bee, and facing angry citizens at recent public meetings, a somewhat chastened group of officials say they want to be more transparent.

“As these weeks have unfolded we’ve heard from you guys, we’ve heard from the community and elected officials about the need to balance this transparency and also safety. So we have changed what we are sharing,” Erin Mellon told The Bee.

Mellon is spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Agency, the parent agency for the California Department of Water Resources. She suggested the public “treat this as a bit of a reset for us in terms of moving away from emergency response to emergency recovery.” And she said the department would review earlier decisions to keep certain information confidential, including documents requested by The Bee under the state’s Public Records Act.

It would be refreshing to see this state agency figure out how to be more open with the public even as it works to ensure security of the dam. For the past couple of months, officials have regularly refused to release information, citing federal security regulations designed to protect us from terrorism. Even when the agency started reversing course to be more transparent, it only released a handful of reports. Some of those documents are heavily redacted.

We are as much in favor of dam security as the officials safeguarding it. Remember, this is California’s second-largest reservoir and the country’s tallest; it needs to be protected. But it is legitimate to also demand that public officials be as open as possible about every aspect of repair tied to the February near failure of the emergency spillway. More than 188,000 people fled in a panicked and chaotic evacuation during that crisis. It is fair for every single one to want to understand how the state intends to fix the dam’s spillways. It is also common sense to expect the public to scrutinize a project that will cost taxpayers or ratepayers an estimated $550 million.

Officials say they are trying to balance security concerns with transparency.

“We’re still trying to hide our vulnerabilities, we don’t want to make our vulnerabilities obvious to everybody, but we also realize you gotta share some information, otherwise folks start thinking you’re keeping secrets,” said David Gutierrez, the retired head of DWR’s Division of Safety of Dams, whom the agency recently hired as a consultant.

We applaud that thinking. Yet the reality is that DWR has yet to make public certain details and decisions about the spillway repairs, so it continues to look like it is keeping secrets. For instance, DWR released a 16-page report to the public in early May that showed outside consultants agree with its plans to stretch spillway repairs over two summers. But DWR redacted five paragraphs that spell out consultant recommendations to make the plan work, citing terrorism concerns.

That kind of decision creates a credibility gap for DWR as it works to repair relationships with the community. Californians like to point out that if this state were a country, it would be the world’s sixth largest economy. As the state capital, Sacramento boasts legions of people with public policy, water, engineering and legal expertise who closely review public documents of significance. Others weigh in as well. J. David Rogers, a dam-safety expert at the Missouri University of Science & Technology, told Bee reporter Ryan Sabalow the subject of the redacted five paragraphs looked more like the kind of information a lawyer would black out to protect a client in a civil lawsuit than something that would protect the public from terrorists.

Will the state change its mind about such redactions?

Sabalow asked DWR’s acting director, Bill Croyle, and Mellon to re-evaluate our Public Records Act requests. We learned this week that only a team of state lawyers and engineers reviewed them before denial; neither Croyle nor Mellon were aware of the specific requests.

The documents Sabalow requested would provide insight into February’s near catastrophe. At the advice of experts and sources, Sabalow requested design specifications, federal inspection reports, technical documents, the results of rock sampling and other documents. State officials denied the entire request.

The Bee also asked for internal communications and emails about the crisis from the office of Gov. Jerry Brown. His office refused to release records that would reveal the response of Brown and his staff as the crisis unfolded.

In his appeal of DWR’s denial, Sabalow requested additional recent dam safety reviews, along with “Dam Safety Compliance” reports that DWR recently classified as secret.

Surely, the Department of Water Resources will understand why the public is interested in dam safety reports. Those living downstream of Oroville Dam certainly do.

Joyce Terhaar: 916-321-1004, @jterhaar