Oroville Dam: Feds and state officials ignored warnings 12 years ago

No word when evacuation order for 188,000 will be lifted as Oroville threat remains

Yolo County opens shelter

Yolo County has opened a shelter to assist those affected by the Oroville Dam spillway evacuation at the Yolo County Fairgrounds in the home arts building, 1250 East Gum Avenue, Woodland.

Massive state response in place for dam emergency

State officials have activated hundreds of people to help deal with the Oroville Dam crisis, sending 100 California Highway Patrol officers to the region and placing 1,200 California National Guard members on notice that they may be needed.

Three CHP helicopters and two aircraft have been dispatched to help with search and rescue, if needed, swift water rescue teams have been sent to the area and military police are being dispatched to help.

“The situation has been stressful,” said Mark Ghilarducci, director of the state Office of Emergency Services. “It’s complex and rapidly changing, so we are doing everything we can to support Butte County and the local authorities to be able to address most of the folks who have been displaced.”

Main spillway holding even as massive releases continue

The huge water releases that officials began to thwart an emergency at the Oroville Dam do not appear to be causing new damage to the main spillway, the acting director of the state’s Department of Water Resources said late Sunday.

Bill Croyle said pushing water out of the main spillway at 100,000 cfs hadn't seemed to cause any additional damage so far. "We haven't seen any," he said.

But he added that the main spillway will continue to be monitored constantly. "With a damaged spillway we want to be careful."

As long as the integrity of the main spillway holds, he believes he can push 1.2 million acre-feet of water out in a day's time, which would represent one third of the reservoir's total capacity. However, with water still flowing in at 40,000 cfs, the lake will remain relatively full; Croyle didn't know how full.

The erosion on the hillside below the emergency spillway is adjacent to a spot where the lip of the emergency structure is about 10 feet high, he said.

Governor issues emergency order to assist in dealing with Oroville Dam crisis

Gov. Jerry Brown’s office said he has issued an emergency order to help authorities deal with the evacuation and other efforts associated with concerns over the potential for flooding from Oroville Dam spillways.

“I’ve been in close contact with emergency personnel managing the situation in Oroville throughout the weekend, and it’s clear the circumstances are complex and rapidly changing,” Brown said. “I want to thank local and state law enforcement for leading evacuation efforts and doing their part to keep residents safe. The state is directing all necessary personnel and resources to deal with this very serious situation.”

State emergency services officials are planning an 11 p.m. press conference to discuss their efforts.

No word on when evacuations may be lifted

Despite officials saying the immediate threat from Oroville Dam’s damaged spillway has passed, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said no decision has been made on when people will be allowed back into their homes.

Because of the uncertainty about the condition of the spillways, Honea said he is not prepared to risk public safety.

“I’m not going to lift the evacuation order until I have a better idea of what that means and what risk that poses,” Honea said.

Authorities say no looting concerns as 188,000 evacuated

Evacuation totals estimated at 188,000 as authorities say no concerns about looting

Authorities said late Sunday that they had issued evacuation warnings to 188,000 people because of concerns over damage to spillways at the Oroville Dam, but said there were no concerns about looting or problems associated with the move.

Law enforcement throughout the region were on scene in Oroville and other affected communities, but Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said there has been no looting or other crime problems.

“Anytime you take on a situation like this where you seek to evacuate thousands of people on very short notice, it can be a chaotic situation,” Honea said. “We understand that.”

Evacuation centers have opened throughout the area, and Honea said most hotels in Chico were full Sunday night.

Speaking at a 10 p.m. press conference, officials said water had stopped flowing over the emergency spillway and that the release of 100,000 cubic feet of water per second from the main spillway had helped drop the lake level.

“The goal is to get it to drop 50 feet,” said Kevin Lawson, a Cal Fire chief. “If we can continue to do that that’s great, that brings a little bit of calm to what we are trying to accomplish here.”

Bill Croyle, acting director of the state Department of Water Resources, said the fact that the lake had been lowered below the lip of the spillway would allow for inspection of the area, and he praised the decision to order evacuations.

“It was a tough call to make, it was the right call to make to protect the public,” Croyle said.

Water flow over spillway stopped

State officials say the water spilling over the Oroville Dam’s emergency spillway has stopped as the lake level dropped low enough.

At 8:45 p.m. the lake level fell below the lip of the auxiliary spillway for the first time since Saturday and “the flowing has stopped,”said Department of Water Resources spokesman Doug Carlson.

Boulders dropped in effort to shore up spillway

At 9 p.m. a state water official said the concrete lip of the emergency spillway was still holding.

“The erosion has slowed, and I think we’re going to be OK,” said state Department of Water Resources spokesman Chris Orrock.

Orrock said efforts Sunday night to shore up the damage included the use of six helicopters that were dropping containers of boulders onto the damaged hillside.

Flows over emergency spillway dry up
Lake Oroville water levels have fallen to 901 feet, the level at which water flows over the emergency spillway, state figures from 8 p.m. show.

That means little or no water is likely coming over the emergency spillway – and the threat of collapse due to erosion has diminished said Joe Countryman, a member of the Central Valley Flood Protection Board and a former engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Water coming over the top of the emergency spillway is likely the main factor in its erosion, Department of Water Resources spokesman Chris Orrock said Sunday night.

Now, officials should be able to start assessing damage to the emergency spillway as it begins to dry. “They are going to dry out the emergency spillway area,” Countryman said. “They are going to start the repair work.”

This does not mean that the risk of catastrophic flooding has passed. Officials released water so quickly over the damaged main spillway that they may have further threatened its integrity, Countryman said.

A large section of concrete at the bottom of the spillway had already collapsed by Sunday, the initial cause of the emergency. As more of the main spillway collapses, it could threaten the spillway’s gates and force officials to stop releasing water into the main spillway, Countryman said. That would likely be catastrophic.

Orrock said Sunday night he did not know how much further damage was done to the main spillway by releasing water so quickly.

“I’m sure it’s going to be severe,” he said.

The morning will reveal how well the damaged, main spillway will hold up under such powerful flows, and whether it can be relied upon to handle that level of water through the rest of the rainy season, said Jay Lund, a civil engineering professor at UC Davis.

“The success of this strategy should be evident tomorrow morning after dawn,” he said.

Sunday night gridlock as Marysville residents evacuate

The frantic effort to evacuate Marysville had ground to a halt at B and 12th streets, the eastbound route to the Yuba foothills. By 8 p.m., hours after the first evacuation orders, a long ribbon of cars and trucks remained marooned at the hard right turn to higher ground.

Lisa and Francisco Esparza of Live Oak fled down Highway 99 to Yuba City, crossing the Feather River into Marysville. Now they were waiting in the long line for points east. Their stop, Grass Valley. They have no family there, they said, but no matter.

“We’re just going to get safe,” Lisa Esparza said.

For thousands in this area, battered in the 1960s, 1980s and 1990s by catastrophic flooding, they know this is no drill, motorists naming their destinations as if it were a local bus route: Browns Valley, Brownsville, Grass Valley.

“There’s a lot of gridlock through the city,” said Marysville Police Lt. Chris Sachs.

Still others were stranded for different reasons. Jennifer Neff of Marysville wandered through a Chevron parking lot, her gas light glowing, her phone on hold with roadside assistance.

Gas stations like this Chevron on B Street were closed, their pumps shut off, even for debit and credit cards.

“There’s nowhere to get gas,” Neff said. “I’ve called roadside assistance – I’m on hold with them now. Do we call the police?”

Later, a young boy ran to the pumps, getting the attention of a motorist.

“Is there gas?” he shouted.

“They’ve shut them down,” came her reply.

For Joseph Wright, Autumn Kaley and their friends, huddled with their belongings and their dogs, Koda and Dooders outside Marysville’s police station, the situation was more dire. They said they were among the 40 or so told to evacuate 14 Forward – temporary housing for this city’s homeless. With no transportation, they were told to use their feet to find somewhere safe.

“There was no plan - they just let us know about an hour ago,” Wright said about 7 p.m. “We’re plumb out of ideas. They told us to walk out of the city limits.”

“A hotel for us won’t be safe,” Kaley said. “If we can just get out of here - (somewhere) nice, warm and safe.”

– Darrell Smith in Marysville

At least nine Chico hotels are full

Butte County announced on Twitter that at least nine hotels in Chico are confirmed full:
  • America’s Best
  • Courtyard Marriott
  • Haven Inn
  • Heritage Inn
  • Motel 6
  • Ramada
  • Oxford Suites
  • Quality Inn
  • Regency Inn
Beale Air Force Base opens roads to evacuees, offers shelter

Beale Air Force announced that it will allow residents to travel across the base to evacuate to higher ground. Drivers can enter at the Doolittle Gate off Hammonton Smartsville Road or Schneider Gate off North Beale Road. They will then exit via the Grass Valley gate.

The base also has opened a shelter for 400 people at the Harris Fitness Center. Evacuees should park at Dragon Town and then transfer to a registration area via bus. Call 530-634-8887 for more information.

Yuba City resident: ‘I think this panic is unnecessary.’

Darlene Tulumello, 52, an unemployed legal secretary in Yuba City, was parked at the gas station with her husband and two cats, trying to figure out where to go.

Just an hour before, she said, they had been doing their grocery shopping when the store announced that it was closing.

Tulumello said they might head to Colusa, though she wasn’t feeling the same sense of urgency to get out of town as the miles of cars backed up on the freeway. Just yesterday, she added, she had been thinking about sticking around at home.

“I think this panic is unnecessary,” Tulumello said. “You might as well sit back, have a beer and let fate take its course.”

Gail Agrifoglio, 67, a retired shipping forklift driver, was caravaning down to Fairfield with her son, sister and niece to stay with her nephew.

She was feeling chipper about the visit, despite the traffic, and had only packed a few pillows and a pair of clean clothes. She expected to return the next day.

“I’ll actually get to see some family,” she said.

After having to evacuate several times before, Agrifoglio said, she was used it. She wasn’t worried about losing anything — though she acknowledged she didn’t have any flood insurance for her home anyway.

“If it goes, it goes,” she said, a raspy laugh erupting.

Vila Smith, 51, had left her job at Wal-Mart and was headed to Sutter to her take care of her 78-year-old father, who refused to leave his house.

Smith said she felt scared, especially being away from her children, whom she had sent down to Sacramento for safety.

Before leaving town she had stopped at home to grab her son’s Bible, which he forgot. She said she didn’t grab anything for herself, except a few important documents like her birth certificate.

“It’s all replaceable,” she said. “Bodies are not.”

– Alexei Koseff in Yuba City

Colusa County Fairgrounds serving as a rest stop, not an overnight shelter

Officials at the Colusa County Fairgrounds are directing evacuees to a different site in Orland.

The Colusa site is a rest stop for travelers with water and restrooms. Contrary to earlier news reports, it is not an evacuation site.

About 100 people are gathered in the fairgrounds parking lot, many with dogs and trunks packed with clothes.

“Nobody has been upset,” said Jonathan Howard, the fairgrounds chief executive. “They’re all happy to have a place to stop.”

Angela Mason of Live Oak gathered her kids as soon as she heard an evacuation order, but had to leave a beloved pet that they could not fit in their van.

Her husband is staying behind for the time being, watching their house and Tommy the pig.

She and three of her children are resting at the Colusa County Fairgrounds while they make final plans for the night.

Mason, 44, evacuated her house during floods in 1997. She said she wasn’t too worried following news about the damaged Oroville Dam spillway, but instantly took the evacuation order seriously.

“I grabbed the kids, threw it all in a bag and said, ‘Let’s go,’” she said.

She’s confident her husband will be able to evacuate if he needs to, but Tommy would have to wait out a flood.

– Adam Ashton in Colusa

Chico evacuation center is full; additional shelter open at Neighborhood Church

Butte County announced at 7:40 p.m. that the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds evacuation center is full. Another shelter is available at the Neighborhood Church in Chico, 2801 Notre Dame Blvd.

Sacramento hotels filling with evacuees

Evacuees are reserving hotel rooms along Hwy. 99 and Interstate 5 in Sacramento near the airport. The Homewood Suites by Hilton started getting calls around 6 p.m., said Front Desk Agent Gao Hang. Twenty reservations were made within the hour in back-to-back phone calls.

“They didn’t care about the price at all because they just need a place to go,” she said. “It’s not just us.”

Two neighboring hotels are filling up as well, she said. The Homewood Suites is about 75 percent reserved so far.

Lake levels down, but risk remains

Oroville Lake depths are decreasing rapidly as officials release a huge amount of water from its main spillway.

Lake levels have fallen about one-half a foot in the last two hours and stand at 901.35 feet, about four-tenths of a foot above the level where water flows through the emergency spillway, state figures show.

At that pace, water should stop spilling over the emergency spillway within several hours, giving officials a chance to more fully assess erosion.

Falling depths do not mean the areas below the dam are safe. The emergency spillway is essentially part of the dam and the concern is that it will fail, something that could happen even if water stops flowing over its top.

Evacuations are widespread
More than 160,000 people in evacuation area

More than 162,000 residents in Butte, Sutter and Yuba counties were affected by Sunday night’s evacuation orders, census figures show.

Butte sheriff: Situation improving

State Department of Water Resources told Butte County Sheriff Kony Honea shortly after 6 p.m. that “the erosion that caused all this concern was not advancing as rapidly as they thought.”

“That’s a very good thing,” he said.

There is a plan currently in place which would hopefully plug that hole, Honea said, including using helicopters dropping bags of rock into the crevasse to prevent any further erosion.

He said two inches of water is still coming over the dam, which “is significantly down” from earlier flows.

“That has helped reduce the level of the lake,” he said. “It’s hopefully going to reduce the pressure on that alternative, emergency spillway and stabilize the situation so we can find a repair and hopefully prevent it from complete failure.”

Meanwhile, officials say they’ve mobilized swift-water rescue teams to be ready should they need to rescue people in floodwaters below the dam.

Horse boarding, RV space offered

Sacramento businessman and former congressman Doug Ose is offering to help board horses for people affected by the evacuation.

“Gibson Ranch in northern Sacto County can accommodate 25 horses and RVs/campers/tents 916-806-3110,” Ose tweeted.

Residents scared

Some evacuees in Marysville say their mood is bordering on panic.

Erin English of Linda said she got a robo-call a few minutes ago telling her to evacuate and get to higher ground.

She immediately called 911 and dispatchers there at first told her to go to Chico, then changed their mind saying that she might not make it there before water came through.

Instead they told her to go to the Colusa Casino.

She was getting gas in South Marysville with her husband and two children and her dogs. They didn’t have time, she said, to grab anything from their home.

“I’m scared to death. I’ve never been through anything like this before,” she said. “I pray for the safety of everybody here.”

Kevin Carroll of Marysville said he’s dubious about the evacuation order, but he is obeying.

He lives on the banks of the Feather River and says the river is not high and could handle a lot more water.

Nevertheless he said the evacuation order is mandatory so he and his wife are gathering up some clothes and the dogs and heading out.

“My wife said go,” he said. “The river is right on our back door.”

He doesn’t expect Marysville to flood though.

“I’m not saying it won’t,” he said. “There’s a lot of room in that river right now.

“It can save lives or be a waste of time,” he said. “I hope for the best for the evacuees. Be safe.”

–Tony Bizjak in Marysville

Expert says spillway failure could be catastrophic

Nicholas Sitar, the Edward G. Cahill and John R. Cahill Professor of Civil Engineering at UC Berkeley, said losing 30 feet from the top of the emergency spillway could be catastrophic.

“You look at 30 feet times the area of the reservoir,” he said. “That is how much water is going to come out. That is a huge volume of water.”

He said the Department of Water Resources is “dumping as much water as the river could handle.”

He said, “All that you do is watch it – whatever expert you talk to, all you can do is hope for the best.”

Evacuation expands

Caltrans tweeted that the evacuation for Yuba, Sutter and Butte counties includes Hallwood, Marysville, Olivehurst/Linda, Plumas Lake, Gridley, Live Oak and Yuba City due to potential failure of Oroville Dam spillway.

Oroville and other area residents streaming out of town have created a large traffic jam at Highway 99 and Bogue Road, where many are fueling their vehicles and heading for safety.

Jessica Robertson, 28, a Yuba City resident, was among the throngs Sunday night filling her gas tank after receiving the word to get out.

“I’m fine, but I’m a little irritated with the traffic,” she said. “I hope everyone stays safe. They’re saying everything’s going to be fine, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.”

Michelle Grandinetti and her family quickly left their home off Oroville Quincy Highway and tried to get on Hwy. 70 to head for a family member’s home in Elk Grove. Grandinetti described a slow-going, frantic scene.

“We took enough clothes for three days, our children, seven total that are still with us, our two dogs and food for them!,” Grandinetti wrote in a Facebook message to The Bee. “We just moved here a few months ago and haven’t ever had to deal with this! Everyone is leaving! All the stores are closed! Just got on the freeway and the river is only feet away!”

Effect on Sacramento?

Sacramento emergency officials are monitoring impact of Oroville Dam emergency

Sacramento County emergency services officials say they are assessing what, if any, impact the Oroville Dam situation may have on Sacamento.

“We are aware of the situation in Oroville and will continue to monitor for any impacts it may have on Sacramento County,” authorities said in a tweet.

The worst case scenario

There is no map showing exactly what will happen if the emergency spillway collapses tonight. Officials only have a map showing a failure of the dam. That worst case scenario is useful in that it shows where water goes and how fast it gets there.

Water would get to the town of Oroville within an hour.

If Oroville Dam were to suffer a massive breach, water would get to the town of Oroville within an hour, according to GIS maps maintained by CalFire.

Within two hours, the small town of Briggs would be affected. In three hours, Gridley would be hit. Water would reach Live Oak in five hours..

It would take eight to 12 hours for the water to get to Marysville and Yuba City.

If the dam completely failed, flood depths could reach more than 100 feet in Oroville and up to 10 feet in Yuba City.

The CalFire maps represent a catastrophic breach and are not necessarily indicative of what could happen tonight.


Authorities issue dire warnings amid imminent California dam collapse

“Immediate evacuation from the low levels of Oroville and areas downstream is ordered,” the Butte County sheriff’s office posted on Facebook Sunday night.

“Operation of the auxiliary spillway has lead to severe erosion that could lead to a failure of the structure. Failure of the auxiliary spillway structure will result in an uncontrolled release of flood waters from Lake Oroville.”

Anticipating the auxiliary spillway’s failure, officials in the northern California town are frantically attempting to drain water from the dam’s main spillway, at a clip of 100,000 cubic feet per second, according to the Sacramento Bee.

“It’s uncontrolled. It’s uncontrolled,” Department of Water Resources spokesman Chris Orrock said, when asked how much water could be released should the spillway break.

An evacuation center has been set up in nearby Chico, the sheriff’s office said on Twitter.

It could take up to $200 million to repair the dam, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Oroville Dam: Feds and state officials ignored warnings 12 years ago

More than a decade ago, federal and state officials and some of California’s largest water agencies rejected concerns that the massive earthen spillway at Oroville Dam — at risk of collapse Sunday night and prompting the evacuation of 185,000 people — could erode during heavy winter rains and cause a catastrophe.

Three environmental groups — the Friends of the River, the Sierra Club and the South Yuba Citizens League — filed a motion with the federal government on Oct. 17, 2005, as part of Oroville Dam’s relicensing process, urging federal officials to require that the dam’s emergency spillway be armored with concrete, rather than remain as an earthen hillside.
The groups filed the motion with FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. They said that the dam, built and owned by the state of California, and finished in 1968, did not meet modern safety standards because in the event of extreme rain and flooding, fast-rising water would overwhelm the main concrete spillway, then flow down the emergency spillway, and that could cause heavy erosion that would create flooding for communities downstream, but also could cause a failure, known as “loss of crest control.”

“A loss of crest control could not only cause additional damage to project lands and facilities but also cause damages and threaten lives in the protected floodplain downstream,” the groups wrote.

FERC rejected that request, however, after the state Department of Water Resources, and the water agencies that would likely have had to pay the bill for the upgrades, said they were unnecessary. Those agencies included the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which provides water to 19 million people in Los Angeles, San Diego and other areas, along with the State Water Contractors, an association of 27 agencies that buy water from the state of California through the State Water Project. The association includes the Metropolitan Water District, Kern County Water Agency, the Santa Clara Valley Water District and the Alameda County Water District.

Federal officials at the time said that the emergency spillway was designed to handle 350,000 cubic feet per second and the concerns were overblown.

“It is important to recognize that during a rare event with the emergency spillway flowing at its design capacity, spillway operations would not affect reservoir control or endanger the dam,” wrote John Onderdonk, a senior civil engineer with FERC, in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s San Francisco Office, in a July 27, 2006, memo to his managers.

“The emergency spillway meets FERC’s engineering guidelines for an emergency spillway,” he added. “The guidelines specify that during a rare flood event, it is acceptable for the emergency spillway to sustain significant damage.”

This weekend, as Lake Oroville’s level rose to the top and water couldn’t be drained fast enough down the main concrete spillway because it had partially collapsed on Tuesday, millions of gallons of water began flowing over the dam’s emergency spillway for the first time in its 50-year history.

On Sunday, with flows of only 6,000 to 12,000 cubic feet per second — water only a foot or two deep and less than 5 percent of the rate that FERC said was safe — erosion at the emergency spillway became so severe that officials from the State Department of Water Resources ordered the evacuation of more than 185,000 people. The fear was that the erosion could undercut the 1,730-foot-long concrete lip along the top of the emergency spillway, allowing billions of gallons of water to pour down the hillside toward Oroville and other towns downstream.

Such an uncontrolled release from California’s second-largest reservoir while it was completely full could become one of the worst dam disasters in U.S. history.

“We said ‘are you really sure that running all this water over the emergency spillway won’t cause the spillway to fail?'” said Ron Stork, policy director with Friends of the River, a Sacramento environmental group that filed the motions in 2005. “They tried to be as evasive as possible. It would have cost money to build a proper concrete spillway.”

Stork watched with horror Sunday night as the emergency spillway was at risk of collapse.

“I’m feeling bad that we were unable to persuade DWR and FERC and the Army Corps to have a safer dam,” he said Sunday.

Stork said that officials from the Department of Water Resources told him informally at the time that the Metropolitan Water District and the water contractors who buy water from Oroville did not want to incur the extra costs.

“I’m sad and hoping, crossing my fingers, that they can prevent the reservoir from failing,” he said. “I don’t think anybody at DWR has ever been this close in their careers to such a catastrophic failure.”

Lester Snow, who was the state Department of Water Resources director from 2004 to 2010, said Sunday night that he does not recall the specifics of the debate during the relicensing process 11 years ago.

“The dam and the outlet structures have always done well in tests and inspections,” Snow said. “I don’t recall the FERC process.”

Stork said at the time he talked to Snow about the environmental group’s concerns, and he recalls that Snow said the issue was being handled mostly by one of his lieutenants.

A filing on May 26, 2006, by Thomas Berliner, an attorney for the State Water Contractors, and Douglas Adamson, an attorney for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, discounted the risk. It urged FERC to reject the request to require that the emergency spillway be armored, a job that would have cost tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars.

“The emergency spillway was designed to safely convey the Probable Maximum Flood, and DWR has reviewed and confirmed the efficacy of the PMF hydrologic analysis for Oroville Reservoir,” the attorneys noted.

Ultimately, they were successful. FERC did not require the state to upgrade the emergency spillway.

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