Mistakes were made

 It almost seems as if in the wake of 9/11 and the creation of the Homeland Security Administration, the fear of dam sabotage has been an excuse for not doing maintenance and repair of dams and the complete failure to plan for the effects of global warming on the Sierra Nevada snowpack. And it seems that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which commissions the hydro-electric plants on the Sierra-river dams,  in the midst of its exquisitely complex scientific and bureaucratic study schedule and meetings, all directed by impeccably value-free facilitators, the sort of catastrophe that happened at Oroville and threatens worse, was not contemplated, at least sufficiently. -- blj



Associated Press
The Latest: Senator vexed by bad communication at dam crisis
OROVILLE, Calif. (AP) — The Latest on the crisis at Oroville Dam (all times local):
6:20 p.m.
A California state senator is troubled that residents below a damaged California dam knew little about potential risk until ordered to evacuate when a spillway began breaking up.
Republican Sen. Jim Nielsen says communication from state managers during the February crisis at Oroville Dam was confusing to the public.
On Feb. 7, a massive crack opened in the main spillway at the dam. For days, managers assured the public there was no imminent danger as they slowed releases of water to assess the damage.
Then, a backup spillway started falling apart, triggering the evacuation order for nearly 200,000 people.
An Associated Press review found officials made a series of questionable decisions and missteps before and during the crisis.
Nielsen represents thousands of residents who were evacuated and says the confusing communication in the days leading to the evacuation will be one issue discussed during a Senate hearing on the crisis this month.
He says "there must be some accountability."
4:45 p.m.
Conservation groups are urging extensive and swift repairs at the nation's tallest dam, where an eroding spillway triggered an evacuation order for nearly 200,000 people in February.
The groups warn in a filing Wednesday with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that state should construct a concrete backup spillway to protect downstream communities below Northern California's Oroville Dam.
They also want more communication and transparency from the government on the work.
On Feb. 7, a massive crack opened in the main spillway at the dam. For days, managers assured the public there was no imminent danger as they slowed releases of water to assess the damage.
Then, a backup spillway started falling apart, triggering the evacuation.
The groups include the Friends of the River and Sierra Club California.
An Associated Press review found officials made a series of questionable decisions and missteps before and during the crisis.
3 p.m.
Managers at the nation's tallest dam made a critical mistake by allowing the lake behind it reach its highest level ever.
That's according to Bill Connolly, a Butte County supervisor in California whose district includes Oroville Dam.
The Associated Press reported Wednesday that dam managers obtained an uncommon exemption from the Army Corps of Engineers to bypass a rule that would have required them to release huge amounts of water from the rapidly filling dam.
The rising water in early February eventually topped a never-before-used spillway, which started breaking apart.
That triggered an evacuation order for nearly 200,000 people.
Connolly says that backup spillway was never intended to be used for flood control so "they never should have let the lake overflow."
He calls the dam poorly run.
12:55 p.m.
Democrats in the U.S. House want the auditing arm of Congress to review dam safety standards following a crisis at the nation's tallest dam.
The group that includes six House members from California tells the Government Accountability Office that a changing climate raises risks for aging dams around the U.S.
The say there is a "real crisis for dam safety."
In February, a massive crack opened in the main spillway at the Oroville Dam in Northern California. For days, managers assured the public there was no imminent danger as they slowed releases of water to assess the damage.
Then, a backup spillway started falling apart, triggering an evacuation order for nearly 200,000 people.
An Associated Press review has uncovered a series of questionable decisions and missteps before and during the crisis.
6 a.m.
An Associated Press review has uncovered a series of questionable decisions and missteps before and during a crisis at America's tallest dam.
In February, a massive crack opened in the main spillway at the Oroville Dam in Northern California.
For days, managers assured the public there was no imminent danger as they slowed releases of water to assess the damage.
Then, a backup spillway started falling apart, triggering an evacuation order for nearly 200,000 people.
The AP has found the dam received an uncommon exemption from federal rules requiring it to release huge amounts of water.
And government overseers overestimated the durability of the two spillways.
State water officials say the crisis was managed as effectively as possible.
Associated Press
AP Exclusive: Management made errors in handling dam crisis
Ellen Knickmeyer and Michael R. Blood
OROVILLE, Calif. (AP) — Late in the afternoon of Feb. 12, Sheriff Kory Honea was at the emergency operations center 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 realized 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. And in public statements during the emergency, they failed to acknowledge — or perhaps recognize — 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 (235-meter) dam in the Sierra Nevada foothills 150 miles (241 kilometers) 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 tire or running out of oil. "This happened. Stuff happens," he said last month.
The crisis began Feb. 7 with the rupture in the main spillway. Dam managers responded by obtaining an uncommon exemption from the Army Corps of Engineers to bypass a rule that would have required them to release huge amounts of water from the rapidly filling dam. Water releases down the main spillway were scaled back drastically, sometimes to zero.
Engineers did this because they wanted to inspect the hole, study how much bigger it might get and think of a way to keep the spillway from crumbling further, state officials said.
All the while, the reservoir behind the dam kept rising, reaching the highest level in the structure's history, because of one of the biggest storms in two decades.
Dam managers repeatedly assured the public there was "no imminent threat." Just 12 hours before water began running down the hillside on Feb. 11, they told Honea in an email that the water releases, though reduced, "will still keep the lake from spilling over the emergency ... spillway."
Not long after the water started going down that spillway, it began ripping away the hillside. That triggered the sheriff's evacuation order, which was quickly endorsed by the dam's managers, who said the emergency spillway could fail within an hour.
"They were futzing around with the main service spillway that had broken. They turned off the flow and were inspecting it and testing it," said Ron Stork, senior policy adviser with Friends of the River, an environmental group. "And all of the time the reservoir was filling."
"And then it failed," Stork said of the emergency spillway. "And you know, they almost lost control."
It was the first time in the history of the 50-year-old dam that the emergency spillway was used, but not the first hint it might be inadequate.
"There's always been an understanding that, man, you don't want to use that emergency spillway, because when you do, it's going to be a mess," said Jerry Antonetti, a retired engineer who was a construction inspector for one of the dam's power plants when the dam was built in the 1960s.
Friends of the River and other environmental groups had argued as far back as 2005 that the earthen spillway needed to be reinforced with concrete. The Department of Water Resources and local water agencies said that was unnecessary.
In 2014, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission not only affirmed the safety of both spillways but also said there was no point in studying or discussing the possibility that either could fail, state water officials told the AP.
Ultimately, the spillways broke apart while handling just a fraction of the water they were designed to carry.
As families from the Gold Rush-era towns below the dam fled their homes, Oroville Dam's managers finally ramped up water releases down the damaged main spillway, bringing the reservoir back down to safer levels. The main spillway kept eroding but handled the flow.
Local officials downstream said the dam's operators failed to keep them fully informed as the emergency unfolded.
On Feb. 7, when word started spreading that a big hole had opened in the main spillway, Honea's dispatchers called state water officials to inquire, and were told that the state was doing only "routine maintenance inspections," according to the sheriff.
In an email a day before the evacuation, Mark Sorensen, the city administrator of the small town of Biggs, about 25 miles from the dam, told the state agency that the state "earned a grade of F on its ability to timely and completely communicate during this incident." State officials are expanding efforts to inform the public, but say there have been dozens of news briefings, updates and advisories.
Department of Water Resources officials said during the crisis that they were primarily worried that the hole in the main spillway would grow larger and take out power-line towers at the dam's hydroelectric plant.
After the evacuation, however, agency spokesman Ed Wilson said the main concern was that the hole could take out the release gates, too. That could lead to devastating flooding downstream.
In this Feb. 13, 2017, file photo, a helicopter takes off with a bag filled with rock to be dropped in a hole on the lip of the dam's emergency spillway. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)
A federally ordered investigation is underway. In the meantime, the spillways will need hundreds of millions of dollars in repairs before the fall rainy season.
Rick Poeppelman, chief of the Army Corps' engineering division for the region, said his agency and the state water managers made the best decisions they could.
"It's kind of the hindsight thing," he said. "The expectation was that the emergency spillway was going to be able to pass."
On Wednesday, a group of U.S. House Democrats called on the auditing arm of Congress to review dam safety standards.
"The Oroville Dam failure did not come without warning," they said in a letter to the Government Accountability Office. The group that includes six House members from California said a changing climate raises risks for aging dams around the U.S.
Meanwhile, the environmental groups Wednesday renewed their request with federal regulators that the earthen, backup spillway be armored with concrete. They also urged more transparency and communication from the government.






Sacramento Bee
Oroville Dam’s flood-control manual hasn’t been updated for half a century
By Ryan Sabalow And Andy Furillo
The critical document that determines how much space should be left in Lake Oroville for flood control during the rainy season hasn’t been updated since 1970, and it uses climatological data and runoff projections so old they don’t account for two of the biggest floods ever to strike the region.
Independent experts familiar with the flood-control manual at Oroville Dam said Wednesday there’s no indication the 47-year-old document contributed to the ongoing crisis involving the dam’s ailing spillways. The current troubles stem from structural failures, not how the lake’s flood-storage space was being managed.
But the experts say Oroville’s manual does point to larger operational issues that affect most of California’s primary flood-control dams. Like the dams, most of the manuals were designed decades ago by engineers using slide rules instead of computers. Many of the documents and licenses that govern dam operations don’t account for advances in hydrology, meteorology and engineering, or for a changing climate.
 “California’s flood infrastructure is based on the hydrology of the past,” said Jeffrey Mount, a senior fellow at the Water Policy Center at the Public Policy Institute of California. “They use the hydrology of the past to design the infrastructure of the future.
“I don’t know a scientist anymore who thinks the future is going to look anything like the past.”
The flood-control manuals are created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. California has more than 1,500 dams, 54 of which are considered primary flood-control structures. The owners of those 54 dams – they include the federal government, the state and in some cases local water districts – must abide by the modeling outlined in the manuals during the rainy season. The modeling is designed to ensure there’s ample space in the reservoirs to capture heavy river flows and mountain runoff, and to prevent catastrophic flooding downstream.
The majority of the manuals haven’t been updated since at least the 1980s. Some are so old, their pages include charts drawn by hand in pen.
The California Department of Water Resources, which operates Oroville Dam, is required to make releases according to charts outlined in the dam’s manual. It’s dated August 1970, two years after the dam’s construction was completed.
Ann Willis, a researcher at the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, is among the critics who say the the manuals are too rigidly tied to outdated weather models. At Oroville, the manual cites weather patterns prior to the 1950s, and data doesn’t account for the catastrophic floods of 1986 and 1997. Plus, the manuals are designed around weather patterns that include capturing water from spring snowmelt, an annual occurrence expected to shift, in both timing and amount, with continued climate change.
Army Corps officials say the manuals have done their jobs, despite their age.
“Just because a water-control manual is old doesn’t mean it’s obsolete,” said Joe Forbis, chief of water management at the Corps’ Sacramento office. “It still allows the reservoir to be operated appropriately.”
He acknowledged his agency would prefer to have updated manuals. But, he said, it’s difficult because the updates require complex engineering and environmental studies. Funding would have to be approved by Congress.
Most recently, the issue of outdated dam manuals came up in the context of California’s five-year drought. At Folsom Dam near Sacramento, local water agencies complained that federal dam operators were releasing too much water from the reservoir during a lengthy dry spell when no major storms were forecast and the state was trying to conserve water. Federal operators said they had no choice, because Folsom’s manual dictated that it create flood-control space based on the time of year.
Unlike many dams, Folsom will get an update to its manual as part of a $900 million installation of a new auxiliary spillway scheduled to be completed later this year.
Mount, of the Public Policy Institute, said dam operations are generally guided by rigid sets of rules that don’t allow for necessary operational flexibility.
 “Adjusting course on dams – whether by changing the infrastructure or the way they are operated – is difficult,” Mount wrote in a post on the PPIC’s website Wednesday. “Licenses for non-federal dams like Oroville – administered by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission – last for 30-50 years. These lock in place all aspects of dam operation for several generations and require herculean efforts to overcome.”
Butte and Plumas counties raise similar concerns as part of a lawsuit pending in California’s 3rd District Court of Appeal. The suit, filed in 2008, argues that another document critical to operations at Oroville Dam fails to reflect modern climate science.
In 2008, the Department of Water Resources conducted an environmental review of dam operations as part of the structure’s 50-year relicensing process. Plumas and Butte counties – whose communities sit in the Feather River watershed above and below the dam – sued, alleging the analysis was inadequate because it did not properly account for climate change.
“They called it ‘speculation,’ ” Butte County Counsel Bruce Alpert said Wednesday.
The case eventually was moved to Yolo Superior Court, and in 2012 Judge Daniel P. Maguire ruled in favor of the state. He echoed arguments made by Department of Water Resources lawyers when he wrote in his statement of decision that an environmental review “need not (and should not) speculate about the future.”
“It is a long step from the relatively generalized climate change data in the record to the project-specific forecasting demanded here,” the judge wrote, “and Petitioners have not carried their burden of showing that DWR could have taken this step.”
The counties appealed, saying the review relied on outdated forecasting models that “fail to protect the public against the hazards of more severe flood events or water supply shortages under climate change.” They are asking the higher court to direct the Yolo judge to set aside DWR’s certification of the environmental review.
DWR lawyers countered in their opposition papers that the environmental report “adequately considers climate change ... based on the limited information available at the time the EIR was certified in 2008.”
“We absolutely account for climate change in all of our planning processes, and the impacts of climate change are integral to the California Water Action Plan,” department spokesman Doug Carlson said in an email.
Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis, said he expects the malfunctions now crippling Oroville Dam will prompt a review of operations and likely an update of its operating manual as part of any retrofit. It also may focus attention on other aging flood infrastructure in the state.
“One thing you learn from civil engineering is you have to have failures in order to make progress,” Lund said.
Sacramento Bee
Oroville Dam earthquake investigation may be needed
By Matt Weiser -
A recent federal inspection has concluded that Oroville Dam, the tallest dam in the nation, needs a comprehensive earthquake safety assessment.
The dam on the Feather River is the primary storage facility for the State Water Project, the state-owned plumbing system that provides drinking water to more than 23million people across California. Failure of the dam could inundate not only the city of Oroville but numerous other communities downstream, including Yuba City, Marysville and even West Sacramento.
The inspection was conducted in 2010 by consultants working for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees hydroelectric dams in the United States. It is the most recent inspection of its kind, which are conducted every five years.
No significant flaws were found in the dam itself. Inspectors recommended the earthquake safety assessment based on newer information about earthquake hazards in the vicinity of the dam. A copy of the inspection was reviewed by The Bee following a Public Records Act request.
Officials at the California Department of Water Resources, which manages the dam, say they don’t plan to conduct the recommended review because they don’t think the expense is justified. But they may be compelled to do it by state or federal regulators who are still considering the recommendation.
Oroville Dam, at 742feet high, was completed in 1968 and is the tallest dam in the United States. It stores 3.5million acre-feet of water, or enough to serve 7 million average households for a year. In California, only Shasta Dam on the Sacramento River stores more water.
State water officials say the dam is sufficiently strong. “Even with today’s understanding of seismicity and ground motions, Oroville still would meet the criteria that would be set today,” said David Panec, chief of dam safety at the DWR’s operations and maintenance division. “The dam is essentially overbuilt.”
Independent experts concur. Like Panec, they point to a 5.7-magnitude quake that occurred near the dam in 1975 that caused no damage to the structure. Subsequent investigations showed that the dam performed well and was not weakened by the quake.
“We’ve seen these types of dams perform very well in earthquakes under very strong shaking,” said Ross Boulanger, a civil engineering professor at UC Davis and an expert on earthquake risk involving earthen and rockfill dams, like Oroville. Boulanger said he has done consulting work for the DWR, but not involving Oroville Dam. “And we know their behavior can be relatively insensitive to modest changes in the seismic hazard.”
Not everyone is confident. Ronald Stork, a senior policy advocate at Friends of the River, said the call for further study of Oroville Dam should not be taken lightly. In recent years, after modern studies, numerous other earthen dams in California have been shown to be vulnerable to earthquakes. For instance, Folsom Dam upstream of Sacramento is now undergoing millions of dollars in upgrades to withstand earthquakes. Similar work is planned at Lake Perris in Riverside County and San Luis Reservoir in Merced County, both also part of the State Water Project.
Stork noted Oroville is also considered a “classic case” for something known as reservoir-induced seismicity. In this phenomenon, the reservoir itself can cause earthquakes, because the enormous weight of water stored behind the dam is enough to shift the Earth’s crust. Studies have documented the phenomenon at Oroville.
“A dam with a whole lot of shaking going on … does seem to be something you need to be really careful about,” said Stork, who monitors dam regulation across the state. “You lose a 3.5million acre-foot reservoir – the tallest in the United States – and that could cause a whole mess of downstream trouble.”
As one piece of the State Water Project, Oroville Dam is part of a complex bureaucratic and political system. Water management at Oroville affects habitat in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and water rates for millions of Californians who depend on that water, from Napa to San Diego.
Any repairs or problems at Oroville Dam are paid for by the 29 urban and agricultural water contractors that buy water from the State Water Project, which include the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Kern County Water Agency, Santa Clara Valley Water District and others. These contractors, in turn, pass along their costs to ratepayers, including homeowners, business owners or farmers.
Those costs have been mounting at Oroville Dam after two expensive and high-profile accidents.
In 2009, five workers were injured when a steel bulkhead inside the dam blew out when two large river outlet valves were opened during a test. The valves have been inoperable ever since, and millions of dollars in repair costs are still looming. A subsequent investigation found that poor safety practices at the DWR contributed to the accident.
In 2012, a major fire occurred at the Thermalito Pumping-Generating Station, which is part of the hydroelectric system at the dam. The fire significantly reduced electric generating capacity at the dam and complete repair costs are still unknown. The DWR recently opened bids for a major cleanup project, the lowest of which was $11.9million. Additional work is needed to get the station operating again.
Negotiations are underway now between the DWR and its contractors to draft new terms for long-term water supply contracts. Among the key disagreements is how much the contractors will pay into a contingency fund so the department can respond more rapidly to emergencies.
The parties also are wrangling over other contract terms to finance two massive water diversion tunnels in the Delta. The $25billion project, supported by Gov. Jerry Brown, will be the most expensive water project ever undertaken in the state.
Leah Wills, a water consultant to Plumas County involved in the negotiations, said the contractors are reluctant to take on more expenses. Plumas County is a state water contractor, though often a contrarian in such negotiations because it is the only state contractor north of the Delta.
“There is no doubt in my mind this is all a big dance over how these new costs are going to be apportioned,” Wills said. “The contractors are kind of legitimately panicked. Somewhere there’s going to be this huge blank check that lands in their laps.”
The 1975 earthquake at Oroville revealed for the first time an active fault directly south of Lake Oroville. Known as the Cleveland Hills Fault, it was traced at the time to within just 1.4miles of Bidwell Canyon Saddle Dam, an earthen dyke that encloses part of the reservoir. Studies after the 1975 quake found no significant damage to the saddle dam or the main dam.
Federal inspectors in 2010 recommended a new seismic evaluation to consider the potential of two other earthquake sources in the vicinity: the Foothill Fault System and the Prairie Creek Fault. They recommended a “finite element analysis,” which involves extensive computer modeling to determine how the dam will perform in earthquake scenarios.
“That would not be uncommon for the consultant to recommend a very cautious and conservative approach,” said Boulanger, of UC Davis. Such studies can take months and cost several hundred thousand dollars, he said.
The DWR could be required to conduct the study, either by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or by California’s Division of Safety of Dams, a separate regulatory unit within the DWR.
Dave Gutierrez, chief of the state’s dam safety division, said he expects his agency will decide in Januarywhether to order further earthquake studies. Asked generally about the dam, he said, “Oroville is not one that keeps me up at night from a seismic stability standpoint.”