Missteps made in US handling of dam crisis

|     Ellen Knickmeyer & Michael R Blood     |

 

OROVILLE, California (AP) – Late in the afternoon of February 12, Sheriff Kory Honea was at the emergency operations centre for the tallest dam in America when he overheard someone say something that stopped him in his tracks: “This is not good.”

Over six straight days, the operators of the Oroville Dam had said there was no immediate danger after water surging down the main spillway gouged a hole the size of a football field in the concrete chute. But now suddenly they realised that the dam’s emergency backup spillway – essentially an unpaved hillside – was falling apart, too, and could unleash a deadly torrent of water.

Honea reacted by ordering the immediate evacuation of nearly 200,000 people downstream.

In the end, after frantic action by the dam’s keepers, catastrophe was averted. But an Associated Press examination of state and federal documents, emails obtained under public records requests and numerous interviews reveal a sequence of questionable decisions and missteps, some of them made years ago, some of them in the middle of the crisis.

Among other things, the dam’s federal and state overseers overestimated the durability of the two spillways.

Ron Stork, senior advisor with the Friends of the River conservation group, points to a chart showing water releases from the Oroville Dam, at his office in Sacramento
Ron Stork, senior advisor with the Friends of the River conservation group, points to a chart showing water releases from the Oroville Dam, at his office in Sacramento
Evacuees in Chico listen to an announcement lifting the evacuation of the Oroville Dam communities
Evacuees in Chico listen to an announcement lifting the evacuation of the Oroville Dam communities
Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea (L) answers a question concerning his decision to lift the evacuation order and allow people to return home, as Bill Croyle, acting director of the Department of Water Resources, looks on during a news conference in Oroville
Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea (L) answers a question concerning his decision to lift the evacuation order and allow people to return home, as Bill Croyle, acting director of the Department of Water Resources, looks on during a news conference in Oroville
In this file photo, a helicopter takes off with a bag filled with rock to be dropped in a hole on the lip of the Oroville Dam’s emergency spillway
In this file photo, a helicopter takes off with a bag filled with rock to be dropped in a hole on the lip of the Oroville Dam’s emergency spillway
Water flows down the damaged spillway at Oroville Dam in California. - PHOTOS: AP
Water flows down the damaged spillway at Oroville Dam in California. – PHOTOS: AP
Delores Dearte (R) and Merna Thompson, neighbours from the town of Gridley, rest at a shelter for evacuees from cities surrounding the Oroville Dam, in Chico, California
Delores Dearte (R) and Merna Thompson, neighbours from the town of Gridley, rest at a shelter for evacuees from cities surrounding the Oroville Dam, in Chico, California

And in public statements during the emergency, they failed to acknowledge – or perhaps

recognise – that while they were busy dealing with one crisis, they were creating a possible new one.

During the darkest hours of the emergency, the fear was that if the hillside collapsed, “It was not whether people would die, but how many would die”, Honea recalled.

State water officials have defended their handling of the crisis at the 770-foot-high dam in the Sierra Nevada foothills 150 miles northeast of San Francisco, saying it was managed as effectively as possible under extraordinary circumstances, including one of the wettest winters on record.

William Croyle, acting head of the California Department of Water Resources, likened the spillway failures to a car getting a flat tyre or running out of oil. “This happened. Stuff happens,” he said last month.