A number of dam proposals were submitted to the state Water Commission last week and the commissioners rejected all of them because they didn't provide enough public benefit for recreation or environmental improvement.
We've collected articles from various parts of Northern California to show different responses -- from Silicon Valley to Hanford to Tulare and Fresno counties to Sacramento. The latter's concerns at the moment illuminate a point never made by promoters of dams: their danger. But cities living downstream from the Oroville Dam have lived in anxiety and fear since one of its spillways disintegrated last year.
The promoters of the recently rejected dam projects all emphasize the importance of drought preparedness. More storage! But is the problem really with the rivers, the dams, the artificial channels and the canals? Or is it that too many people and too much farming are putting too much pressure on these natural systems? Will it never get through to land-use authorities that California has droughts and floods, despite abundance evidence that California has droughts and floods?
In fact, the promoters are just planning for growth, as usual, even though drought, flood, and the late real estate debacle have modified the reputation of the state.
San Jose Mercury News
Plans for new dams, reservoirs in California hit big hurdle
Signaling trouble for nearly a dozen landmark water storage projects to help California cope with its next drought, state water officials on Thursday announced none of the proposals — including raising Contra Costa County’s Los Vaqueros Dam and building a new Santa Clara County dam near Pacheco Pass — provide the public benefits that their supporters claim, potentially putting their state funding at risk.
The announcement sent waves of anxiety and concern through California’s water world, and could be a major stumbling block in the efforts to expand the state’s water supply.
Three years ago, during the depths of California’s historic drought, state voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 1, a $7.5 billion bond measure to pay for new water projects, including building more dams and reservoirs.
Hoping to get some of that money, water districts drew up plans and submitted lengthy applications for 11 projects, including two in the Bay Area and a massive new $5.1 billion lake in Colusa County known as Sites Reservoir.
But on Thursday, the staff of the California Water Commission, which must decide by July which water storage projects will receive bond money, raised major concerns. They announced that nearly half of the projects have no public benefits that meet the ballot measure’s rules for getting money, and the rest fall significantly short of providing as much benefit to the public as they would cost.
Joe Yun, executive officer of the commission, whose nine-member board is appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown, said at a meeting in Sacramento that his agency will provide more details to the public on Feb. 2, and that the projects’ supporters will have three weeks to appeal. The scores could change after those appeals come in, he said, which would affect how much money, if any, is approved for each project.
“We are not kicking folks out,” he said. “This is an expression of additional information that needs to come.”
But dam supporters were shaken. If the low scores by the commission’s staff hold up through its appeals process in the next few months, many of the dam and reservoir projects are likely to get no state money from Proposition 1 or in some cases, less than they have budgeted, reducing their chances of ever getting built.
“We were shocked,” said Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, a coalition of 430 public water agencies across the state.
“I think the voters would be concerned that staff working for the state government are clearly raising huge hurdles toward moving these projects forward,” Quinn said.
State Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Yuba City, said the state is risking losing its best opportunity in 50 years to build new reservoirs.
“The public should be concerned. They voted for large new dams and reservoirs,” Nielsen said. “I think this is an effort to undermine the intent of the voters. It looks like the staff is setting the bar so high that nobody can reach it. The citizens of California need to know what’s happening. I can’t say how important this is.”
Both the California Democratic and Republican parties, along with Gov. Jerry Brown and Sen. Dianne Feinstein and then-Sen. Barbara Boxer, endorsed Proposition 1, which passed with a landslide 65-35 percent vote in November 2014. Major unions, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and the California Chamber of Commerce endorsed it, as did the California Farm Bureau Federation and numerous environmental groups, including the Nature Conservancy, Audubon California and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The measure provided money for new water treatment plants, water recycling projects, flood control projects and wetlands restoration. Some of that already has been spent by other agencies on those projects. The measure also provided $2.7 billion for new water storage, which is defined as dams, reservoirs and groundwater storage.
But unlike with other water bonds in the past, Democrats in the Legislature who put it on the ballot insisted that none of the measure’s money for dams could pay for increased water storage, only other benefits, particularly environmental ones. The fine print of the ballot measure also says that the bond money can pay no more than half of any project’s total cost, with local water agencies or the federal government paying the rest.
And most important, it requires that every storage project must be ranked by the California Water Commission with a scoring system that takes into account “public benefits.” Those benefits are defined not as how much water a reservoir can hold, but rather, how much it improves recreation, like boating or hiking, flood control and environmental conditions, such as helping endangered salmon populations come back by providing cold water to streams during dry periods.
Some environmental groups say those rules make sense.
“If the state is going to put up taxpayer money for a project, it is appropriate that there be broad public benefit rather than just subsidizing private interests or agencies who have other means of getting the funding from local ratepayers,” said Kyle Jones, a policy advocate with Sierra Club California. “It’s not fair for people in Redding to subsidize a dam in Los Angeles unless the whole state is benefiting.”
The commission wrote rules to calculate a “public benefit ratio” that would account for 33 percent of the overall score of each project, with the rest coming from categories like how feasible it is to construct or how resilient it will be as the climate changes. For example, supporters of an $800 million project asking the state for $400 million must show that their project would provide $400 million in new public benefits, like improved salmon runs, flood control or recreation. If they don’t hit that 1-to-1 ratio, they are less likely to receive the money. Further, half of all the money the state gives must be for “ecosystem improvements,” the ballot measure said.
In recent weeks, although all the projects claimed ratios of $2 in public benefits for every $1 in state money, or even as high as $6-to-$1, staff members at the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, State Water Resources Control Board and Department of Water Resources have reduced or rejected those economic claims as inflated. After the detailed scores are made public by the commission on Feb. 2, the agencies will have until Feb. 23 to change their projects as part of their appeals to increase the chance of getting funded.
“We’re not paying for water. We’re paying for public benefits,” said Chris Orrock, a spokesman for the California Water Commission. “As defined in Prop 1, water is not one of those benefits that we are funding. We’ve been very clear at every step.”
State Water Commission rejects dam project funding
The commission says they have all failed to show they will provide enough benefit to the public and the environment.
This is seen as a potentially critical setback for Temperance Flat and 10 other dam projects. The State Water Commission says all exaggerated their claims to provide benefits to people and the environment. Those benefits are key to getting state funds to help pay for the dams.
Supporters of Temperance Flat Dam are upset. The staff of the State Water Commission is recommending no state funding for the dam, or ten other proposed water projects around the state.
Manuel Cunha of the Nisei Farmers League is part of a joint powers authority of local governments, irrigation districts and farm groups working to get half of the money for the 2.7 billion dollar Temperance Flats project from the state water bond.
But the staff of the State Water Commission has decided Temperance Flat and 10 others including Stites Dam, haven't shown they qualify for state funds because they did not adequately show the public benefits of their projects.
"Showing the public benefits of the facility on all fronts and yet they say no, it's not good enough," Cunha said.
Not good enough because the state water bond, or Prop 1, approved by voters three years ago does not actually pay for the dams, but for public benefit the dams would provide. Westside farmer, Joe Del Bosque, is a member of the water commission.
"Prop 1 is to pay for the public benefits each project provides, the principal being ecosystem improvements to the Delta and its tributaries. That has to be at least 50% of the public benefit so that's the critical one," Del Bosque said.
Other benefits include public recreation.
According to the State Water Commission, Temperance Flat and the ten other projects exaggerated their public benefit.
Cunha sees it as a stalling tactic.
But, Del Bosque believes it is just a lack of information.
"I think it was a little surprising but staff is pretty meticulous in what they want. And so the project proponents did maybe not have enough information to make an adequate evaluation," Del Bosque explained.
So now, those backing Temperance Flat and all of the other dam projects have just three weeks to update their information. To show that for every dollar spent there will be one dollar worth of public benefit.
The State Water Commission will then study the clarifications and is expected to issue a decision on which project qualifies for state funding in April.
In the meantime, Cunha, and other supporters of Temperance Flat will keep pushing for Temperance Flat, a project they see as vital to the Valley's water needs.
Temperance Flat plan submitted to state, who will benefit?
By John Lindt
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California Farm Bureau contributed to this story.
Temperance Flat took a major step toward reality in a regional partnership seeking state of California water bond funds.
The San Joaquin Valley Water Infrastructure Authority, a joint power authority, this week filed an application for Proposition 1 state water bond funding with the California Water Commission meeting a statutory April 14 deadline. Chair of the JPA Tulare County Supervisor Steve Worthley says the application also included a new JPA authored study required by the commission, looking at how the proposed new dam above Fresno, could manage water in years to come with an expected lower snowpack due to global warming.
Worthley said as a result of the filing and Valley support for the project he expects some of the $2.7 billion identified in voter approved Prop 1 will be allocated to Temperance Flat along with Sites Reservoir and Los Vaqueros Reservoir.
“Just how much will be the question.”
“I am optimistic we will be funded through a combination of the state, federal and private money to build the Temperance Flat dam,” he said at a news conference in Fresno.
The Water Commission is expected to allocate funding by May or June of next year. The Commission, through the Water Storage Investment Program, will fund the public benefits of these projects. Eligible projects must also provide measurable benefits to the Delta ecosystem or its tributaries.
Kings County rep on the Valley JPA, Supervisor Doug Verboon, says the reservoir is unique."This is the only new storage project south of the delta" that has been the choke point for water starved central and southern California. "Working with our region's neighbors we can improve water conditions here for everybody, helping our groundwater."
In water short years like the recent drought, not enough water is moved south to satisfy the needs of farms and cities in the Valley and a new supply that does not depend on or pass through the Delta is welcome.
Backers of the proposed Temperance Flat Dam and Reservoir say the $2.8 billion project would capture and store additional water in the San Joaquin River watershed, creating greater flexibility, relaxing pressure on groundwater and providing other benefits to the region.
Temperance Flat would add 1.26 million acre-feet of storage to Millerton's existing storage of 520,000 acre-feet, helping to resolve a nagging problem. In wet years, Friant Dam is too small to handle abundant runoff from the Sierra that comes every four to five years causing flood problems and requiring valuable water to be shuttled out to sea.
In other years east side water contractors find themselves short water because the dam has little storage for carry over in these alternative dry/wet periods.
Unlike the current arrangement, Temperance Flat is being touted to potentially benefit not just existing east side water districts along the Friant Kern Canal through the Central Valley project - but westside districts and entire regions as well.
Sharon McHale, a branch chief for the Bureau of Reclamation Mid-Pacific Region, which operates the CVP, said the project needs more storage to meet current and future needs.
"We have a lot of years where we're short, where we can't provide our full contract amount to contractors in the Friant Division," McHale said.
"We are not providing any water to Westside contractors at this point from the existing (Friant) dam, so it (Temperance Flat) would provide water to two groups of contractors that do agricultural irrigation and are in need of additional supplies and water supply reliability," she said.
One would think the big beneficiary of more water on the upper San Joaquin would be the existing east side water contractors that include Friant Water Authority and their breakaway group - the South Valley Water Authority that includes districts from Ivanhoe south to Shafter.
But neither group has joined or formally backed the JPA even as this critical application is filed with the Commission. “We are still negotiating with Friant,” says Worthley adding he is "optimistic we will come to an agreement.”
At the JPA meeting in July the minutes show that Friant Water Authority wanted reduced dues to join, $20,000 instead of $50,000, a proposal rejected by a majority of the rest of the JPA. Worthley says since then there has been a meeting of the minds on money.
Friant Water CEO Jason Phillips confirms progress in talks. "I expect we will join the JPA."
But South Valley Water Authority Executive Director Dan Vink says the backdrop on his own group’s hesitancy to back the project is based on “lack of agreement within the JPA over who will benefit from the extra water.” He worries the unlike Sites Reservoir's backers where there is agreement over just how the water will be used - Temperance backers are still scrambling now at the 11th hour.
Vink explains that currently the Bureau delivers water to irrigation districts on the east side from the San Joaquin watershed but the new plan might expand that benefit to so-called "white areas" where there is no delivery of surface water. Also, the JPA includes westside members who will want to see direct benefits. That might mean less water for the existing group of water districts. So the pie could get smaller.
Some east side districts who enjoy receiving cheap floodwater currently, when there is too much, fear they will lose that benefit under a new agreement.
A tension has also developed in part because the new state groundwater ordinance has the practical effect on any parcel that has little prospect of water will now, not be able to plant a crop on that land. The upshot is that we will see fewer acres of irrigated farmland in the region.
But them that got it - want to keep it.
Worthley appears to embrace the idea of helping these “white areas” with the Temperance project.
He says Temperance Flat would provide surface supplies to allow for groundwater recharge, which would help the region comply with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.
"SGMA mandates we put in plans for the overdrafted groundwater basins, so places like Raisin City (that rely only on groundwater), if they don't get some type of surface water and recharge opportunities, they are going to have to start fallowing," Worthley said. "Without this project, especially with (SGMA), we are going to lose a very significant portion of this region's ability to feed this country.”
Valley groundwater management, under the new law, will be in full swing long before Temperance is storing water - 10 years from now, if we are lucky.
Temperance Flat Dam and Reservoir have been under consideration for decades. The proposed project’s site was the originally proposed location for a Millerton area reservoir in 1930. The present Friant Dam location was selected to reduce construction costs.
Project benefits include increased regional water supply reliability and system operational flexibility that would increase water supply, enhance fish habitat, flood control and recreation as well as improve reliability for municipal and industrial users. Being able to capture and hold high flows until there is conveyance and percolation capacity available for moving the water to distant aquifer recharge and banking facilities is critical for improving the Valley’s groundwater management. Temperance Flat would create an important storage facility south of the environmentally stressed Delta that could also be used, if absolutely necessary, in an emergency.
San Jose Mercury News
Plans for major new reservoir in Santa Clara County moving forward
Paul Rogers |
Hoping to boost water supplies during future droughts, Silicon Valley’s largest water provider is working on a plan to build a new $800 million dam and reservoir in the remote hills of eastern Santa Clara County, just off Pacheco Pass.
The idea, still in the early stages, could result in the construction of one of the largest reservoirs in the Bay Area — a lake that would be twice the size of Crystal Springs Reservoir along Interstate 280 in San Mateo County — and the first new reservoir built in Santa Clara County since 1957, when Uvas Reservoir near Morgan Hill opened.
“It remains to be seen if it is feasible. But it definitely is worth exploring,” said Garth Hall, deputy operating officer at the Santa Clara Valley Water District. “This is a major opportunity to find new storage.”
On Feb. 28, the board of the water district, a government agency based in San Jose, voted to pay consultants up to $900,000 to study the idea. If those studies show the project has promise, Hall said, the district will apply for funding under Proposition 1, the $7.5 billion water bond that California voters passed in 2014 to help pay for new reservoirs, underground storage, conservation programs, water recycling, desalination and other water projects.
The project faces considerable hurdles, from its price tag to tricky geology.
“The good dam sites were taken long ago,” said Jonas Minton, senior water policy adviser at the Planning and Conservation League, a Sacramento environmental group. “What’s left are projects that are more expensive and provide less water supply.”
The new reservoir would be built on, or slightly upstream from, an existing reservoir, Pacheco Lake, in the rugged ranch lands about half a mile north of Highway 152 near Casa de Fruta. That lake, owned by the tiny Pacheco Pass Water District, sits on Pacheco Creek behind North Fork Dam, a 100-foot earthen dam built in 1939. The existing reservoir is small and holds only 6,000 acre-feet of water. The new reservoir would hold 130,000 acre-feet. An acre-foot is 325,851 gallons, or roughly the amount of water a family of five uses in a year. By comparison, Anderson Reservoir, the largest reservoir in Santa Clara County, holds 90,000 acre-feet.
Pacheco Lake sits behind a 100-foot earthen dam built in 1939, known as North Fork Dam in the foothills of eastern Santa Clara County near Hollister. (Gary Reyes/Bay Area News Group) (Gary Reyes/ Bay Area News Group)
The plan would be to tear down North Fork Dam and build a new dam either on the same location or up to a mile upstream, Hall said, in the oak woodlands of the Diablo Range. The new earthen dam would be at least 200 feet tall and potentially 300 feet tall. The district would take water it now stores in nearby San Luis Reservoir and pipe it into the new reservoir, filling it in wet years. There’s already a pipe, known as the San Felipe Project, running from San Luis Reservoir through the mountains into Anderson Reservoir, so building a connection to bring the water into the San Jose area would be relatively easy, district officials believe.
The idea, as with many dam projects, is expected to face controversy.
The district studied two locations in the same area as far back as 1993 for a new reservoir of roughly between 150,000 and 400,000 acre-feet. Both would have submerged part of Henry W. Coe State Park. When plans moved ahead in 2003, the outcry and potential lawsuits from park lovers and environmental groups led the district to drop the idea.
The 1993 study noted that shale geology in the area is unstable in places, which would make building a dam difficult. One site, known as Pacheco B, located 1.5 miles upstream from the existing reservoir, had solid geology, however. A 150,000 acre-foot reservoir there would cover about 1,200 acres, a 2002 district study found, and would require a 305-foot-tall dam and the acquisition of 25,000 acres of surrounding ranch land to protect the watershed.
The new proposal would not cross the Henry Coe park boundary, Hall said, and could provide more water and passage to help endangered steelhead trout migrate up Pacheco Creek into the state park.
Another challenge is the cost. Any new dam would result in increased water rates in Santa Clara County. The district, which provides water to 1.9 million people, has a long list of costly expenses coming up, including $400 million to rebuild the 67-year-old, seismically unsound Anderson Dam near Morgan Hill.
The district is also exploring other projects. Among them: a partnership with the Contra Costa Water District to raise the height of the dam at Los Vaqueros Reservoir in eastern Contra Costa County by 51 feet, increasing its storage from 160,000 acre-feet to 275,000 acre-feet at a cost of about $800 million, and sharing that water. And it is studying a proposal to store more water at Lake Del Valle in rural Alameda County with the Alameda County Water District.
“With the drought, we realized our vulnerability,” said Gary Kremen, a board member of the Santa Clara Valley Water District. “New projects are expensive, but what’s the cost of reliability? No one wants to run out of water.”
The Los Vaqueros project may be more feasible than a new Pacheco Pass reservoir, said Minton, a former deputy director of the state Department of Water Resources. It has no environmental opposition and would be built at an existing reservoir that already was successfully expanded five years ago.
“This is a new idea, which even if it is worthwhile will take quite a while to prove out,” Minton said. “Los Vaqueros is much further along.”
Oroville Dam spillway built on crumbling rock, warned contractor that built it
By Dale Kasler And Ryan Sabalow
An investigation into last winter’s near catastrophe at Oroville Dam uncovered a litany of problems with how the dam was built and maintained, but one of them stands out: Even as workers built the dam, they were raising alarms about the eroded, crumbling rock on which they were directed to lay concrete for the 3,000-foot-long main flood control spillway.
Construction reports from the fall of 1966 showed an abundance of loose clay, “shot rock” and “very little solid rock.” The surface was so crumbly, according to a state engineer overseeing the work, that a laborer at one point refused to do any more prep work until he got clearance from his boss. The contractor told the California Department of Water Resources it needed to dig deeper to find stronger rock.
But DWR limited the additional excavation work proposed by the contractor, a decision that investigators now say might have been motivated by money.
Nearly four decades later, in 2005, DWR officials took a similar stance when a coalition of environmental groups urged it to reinforce the weathered earthen hillside below another crucial component of the dam: its emergency spillway. This spillway – never tested – was intended to allow water to escape if the main spillway couldn’t release water quickly enough in a megastorm.In 2005, DWR dismissed out of hand the notion that the emergency spillway needed strengthening. Critics said that decision also was driven by costs.
The warnings proved prophetic. Last Feb. 7, the main spillway fractured in two – the result of being built atop a foundation riddled with “erodible materials,” a team of forensic investigators has concluded. Five days later, with the reservoir brimming, water poured over the emergency spillway for the first time ever. The unlined hillside quickly began washing away, triggering flood fears and an emergency evacuation of 188,000 downstream residents.
In addition to the erosion issues, the forensic team hired by DWR to investigate the Oroville emergency found that the main spillway was designed by an inexperienced engineer, plagued by a woefully inadequate drainage system and poorly maintained in the years that followed its 1968 completion.
The team also revealed that DWR had studies in its files, from well before the dam was built, that showed both spillways rested atop a foundation of wildly varying quality, some of it dangerously weak.
“That sort of set the physical stage for what happened 50 years later,” forensic team leader John France said in an interview.
The investigators concluded the eroded rock and a poor drainage system below the main spillway allowed water to gather beneath its concrete chute. The voids made the spillway vulnerable to “uplift forces” that eventually caused it to crack open.
“The decision to leave the weathered material in place underneath the chute (was) a big decision, a significant decision,” France said. “It is certainly a big part of why we said the causes of this really go back to the original design and construction.”
DWR officials have said they’ve now addressed the underlying problem. As the general contractor has repaired the fracture to the main spillway, it’s scoured deep into portions of the foundation to find stronger rock. That’s been costly: Excavating and then filling in the foundation has helped drive the repair cost to around $500 million, nearly double the original estimate.
The forensic team’s findings are seen as crucial to DWR’s efforts to reinvent itself under its new director, Karla Nemeth, following the Oroville crisis. Stung by the investigators’ report, the department has pledged to revamp its inspection methods by incorporating blueprints and construction records to get a better handle on the dangers lurking at the 1,249 dams it oversees.
In Oroville’s case, there was no shortage of archival material. In its 584-page report released Jan. 5, the forensic team cited a series of geological surveys revealing spotty conditions where the spillways were built. A study conducted in 1948, when the site was being scouted for dam construction, showed multiple instances of weathering to the amphibolite, greenstone and ophiolite rock. Three follow-up reports conducted between 1962 and 1965 also spoke to the uneven foundation quality.
Once construction got started, daily reports by the general contractor and DWR officials provided further evidence of flaws in the foundation. In one report Oct. 31, 1966, a DWR engineer noted that one spot consisted of “loose clay ... on the surface, with very little good rock.”
By 1967, the contractor building the main spillway was telling DWR that it needed to excavate more of the hillside to find solid ground. The company, a joint venture between Oro Pacific Constructors and George Farnsworth Construction Corp., said it would dig deeper into the bedrock and “backfill” the excavated sites to create a stronger foundation.
The daily reports “support the contractor’s claim of poor foundation conditions,” the forensic team said.
But DWR wasn’t eager to allow more excavation, and a dispute arose between the agency and the contractor.
Money may have been a factor. The additional work would have added $1.2 million to the spillway’s cost, according to the forensic report. That’s about $9 million in today’s dollars, inflating the cost of the spillway by nearly 10 percent.
DWR eventually agreed to the idea, but only partially, allowing some of the weathered rock to stay in place, the forensic team said. It appeared that DWR was trying “to prevent significant cost overruns,” according to the forensic report.
France, in the interview with The Sacramento Bee, said there was no definitive proof that cost played a role in DWR’s decision; the investigators weren’t able to find full documentation of the dialogue between DWR and the contractor. He added that time constraints may have factored into DWR’s deliberations as well.
“The more you have to excavate and replace (the rock), that takes time and it delays construction,” France said.
As it was, DWR was wrestling with a host of other problems at Oroville, which was the centerpiece of the State Water Project – Gov. Pat Brown’s almost messianic vision for delivering water as far south as San Diego. The dam’s construction was plagued with labor strikes, fatal accidents and other woes.
However, there is no indication in the forensic report that pressure from the Governor’s Office influenced DWR’s decision on the spillway foundation. By 1967, when the dispute with the contractor came to a head, Ronald Reagan was governor.
In any event, Ron Stork of the Sacramento environmental group Friends of the River, said it’s troubling that DWR stuck to its beliefs that the bedrock was basically sound, when the agency’s reports clearly showed it wasn’t.
“There wasn’t due diligence to dig into the underlying basis of the claims and beliefs in the geology that DWR was developing,” said Stork, whose group has tangled with state officials for years over Oroville safety issues. “That’s bad science, and bad science has consequences.”
Completion of the dam and its spillways in 1968 appeared to reinforce the mindset within DWR that all was well. As the years passed, the warnings from the early 1960s seemed to fade from DWR’s institutional memory, according to the forensic team.
“Actual bedrock conditions, and the implications of those conditions, were well documented prior to and during construction, but there was no post-construction recognition of the weathering potential of the rock types present at Oroville,” the investigators wrote. “Detailed and accurate information was not properly accessed in subsequent years; rather, inaccurate and incomplete summaries of information were passed on through generations of DWR personnel.”
This habit manifested itself in a big way in 2005, when Oroville Dam’s operating license was up for renewal at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Friends of the River and two other groups petitioned FERC. Their argument: The emergency spillway – a concrete lip perched on an unlined hillside – was a potential danger zone. They said the hillside should be reinforced with concrete to prevent it from washing away.
FERC asked DWR for a response to the coalition’s demand on Nov. 29, 2005. It took DWR less than a day to respond. DWR’s geology branch concluded the hillside was “composed of solid, essentially non-erodible bedrock with an insignificant layer of top soil that will erode,” according to the forensic report.
The forensic team said DWR’s reply was a rush job, based on a cursory look at the 1960s geological studies. “It is evident that very little actual research, if any, was conducted,” the investigators wrote. “This was merely an exercise in document gathering.”
For its part, the federal government didn’t appear to be interested in scrutinizing DWR’s findings too closely, either. DWR’s response was “obviously not critically reviewed by FERC,” the forensic team wrote.
Along similar lines, the forensic team found that precious little scientific evaluation went into a lengthy memo to FERC, opposing the environmentalists’ demands, by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and other so-called State Water Contractors. These water agencies, which would have to pay for lining the hillside with concrete, said in the memo that there was no evidence that erosion would be a major problem.
According to the forensic team, the water agencies didn’t perform any research; they simply assumed that the dam and its spillways had been designed safely in the first place. “There was no actual technical questioning by the (State Water Contractors) of the geologic conditions,” the forensic team wrote.
Environmentalists said the resistance to reinforcing the hillside was driven by cost considerations – a notion that has been flatly denied by officials with the Metropolitan Water District.
Ultimately, the federal agency rejected the demand to have the hillside lined with concrete – an oversight that is now being partially corrected. As part of the estimated $500 million repair work at Oroville, millions of dollars are being spent installing concrete slabs that will extend several hundred feet down the hill. State officials hope the bulk of the repair costs will be reimbursed by the U.S. government, with the rest covered by the State Water Contractors.
‘Culture of corruption’ cited as Oroville sues state over dam crisis
Dale Kasler and Ryan Sabalow
The city of Oroville sued the California Department of Water Resources on Wednesday over the Oroville Dam crisis, accusing the state agency of mismanaging the dam and knowingly performing inadequate maintenance on its main flood-control spillway.
In a blistering lawsuit filed in Butte County Superior Court, the city said DWR encouraged a “culture of corruption” in which supervisors let underlings get away with shoddy maintenance. In addition, African American employees were subjected to a hostile work environment, including the placing of a noose in a conference room, all of which “undermined the maintenance and safety of the dam,” the suit maintains.
The lawsuit, filed on the city’s behalf by the well-known Bay Area law firm of Cotchett Pitre & McCarthy and Woodland law firm Gardner, Janes, Nakken, Hugo & Nolan, also suggests DWR disposed of a large chunk of concrete from the failed spillway – a piece of material that likely showed evidence of improper maintenance.
“Important maintenance projects were delayed or never completed, and substandard supplies were used to address vulnerabilities in the dam’s armored spillway,” the suit says. “Workers who voiced concerns were silenced by DWR management.”
The suit says DWR neglected dam safety because of “undue influence” by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and other State Water Project member agencies that store water behind the dam and pay for its operation. This influence, which began when Lester Snow was DWR director, contributed to postponement or cancellation of maintenance projects, the suit says.
Snow, who ran DWR from 2004 to 2011, denied that water contractors persuaded him to compromise dam safety. “I’m kind of shocked by that (allegation),” he said in an interview.
Erin Mellon, a spokeswoman for DWR, said the agency wouldn’t comment on pending litigation. Previously the state has said it never neglected dam safety but is revamping its inspection practices to ensure that a spillway failure like Oroville’s never happens again.
The suit says the city suffered in numerous ways, including damage to roadways, costs to evacuate citizens and increased law enforcement costs. It doesn’t put a price tag on the city’s damages, however.
Oroville’s crisis began Feb. 7, when a giant crack appeared in the dam’s main spillway as a rainstorm rolled into the region. As the reservoir filled up, water poured over the never-before-used emergency spillway, which rests atop an unlined hillside. The hillside began eroding, and law enforcement officials ordered the immediate evacuation of 188,000 downstream residents.
The lawsuit repeats many of the charges made by the independent forensic team hired by DWR to investigate the February crisis: that the spillway was designed by an inexperienced engineer and was poorly maintained in the decades that followed. The forensic team said the spillway was built on crumbly rock and wasn’t adequately anchored in place. In addition, DWR disregarded warnings that the hillside below the emergency spillway was in danger of eroding, the forensic team said.
“For decades, DWR had notice of the vulnerabilities of the main spillway and the emergency spillway,” the suit said. “Instead of taking action, DWR buried its head in the sand.”
The city of Oroville was one of hundreds of local governments, businesses and others that filed monetary claims with the state Department of General Services for costs relating to the dam crisis. The state has rejected all of the claims, prompting plaintiffs to take the state to court.