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Oroville Dam Forensic Team: 'Systemic Failure'

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

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According to a report released Jan. 5, experts have concluded that the failure of the Oroville Dam spillways was due to an “inadequate priority for dam safety,” while also noting that the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) has “been somewhat overconfident and complacent regarding the integrity of its civil infrastructure.”

More than this, however, the report, funded by the DWR, indicates decades of neglect in terms of repairs and reporting on the condition of the spillway, and issues that began with its initial construction.

Spillway History

The main spillway at Oroville, built in the 1960s on top of poor quality rock, was designed by someone recently out of college and with only two years of experience, noted the Mercury News. The designer reportedly had no experience with planning spillways, but has been promised anonymity as it relates to current events.

Otherwise, the report indicates, “the seriousness of the weak as-constructed conditions and lack of repair durability was not recognized during numerous inspections and review processes over the almost 50-year history of the project.”

Ken James / California DWR

According to a report released Jan. 5, experts have concluded that the failure of the Oroville Dam spillways was due to an “inadequate priority for dam safety,” while also noting that the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) has “been somewhat overconfident and complacent regarding the integrity of its civil infrastructure.”

In anticipation of the winter rainy season, more than 500 crew members worked over the summer to fix the main spillway of the dam, which is owned by the DWR and inspected by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The first round of work was completed in November, but more is planned for 2018.

Blame Game

While different sides attempt to blame certain entities for what happened with the Oroville spillway, what remains apparent is the decades-long neglect of the dam. Cracks began to appear in the concrete slabs of the main spillway as early as 1968, shortly after its christening. This resulted in water seepage and erosion, but this was not seen as a serious problem—instead, the cracks were simply patched.

The report notes that “repeated repairs were ineffective and possibly detrimental.”

The DWR has since issued a promise of following the report’s findings as work is continued to improve the safety of dams across the state of California.

“As we have done in the past, we will carefully assess this report, share it with the entire dam-safety community and incorporate the lessons learned going forward to ensure California continues to lead the nation on dam safety,” said Grant Davis, director of the Department of Water Resources.

Spillway Cracks

This past fall California officials downplayed concerns about cracks in the newly constructed concrete spillway at the dam, despite questions from federal regulators in a recently disclosed memo from October.

KQED News reported Nov. 27, 2017, that a letter dated Oct. 2, sent by an engineer with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, questioned the presence of “a number of small cracks in the upper surface of the concrete slabs” of the newly reconstructed Oroville spillway.

In the letter addressed to the DWR, FERC engineer Frank L. Blackett wrote, “We understand that DWR has at least initially expressed some concern about these cracks and has taken a number of actions to adjust the concrete mix design and contact some concrete material experts to identify possible actions.”

Blackett asked that the DWR work to determine the cause of the cracking and establish a plan to address it.

Phase One Complete

The DWR announced on Nov. 1, 2017, that first-year operations as part of the two-year repair project had wrapped up on deadline ahead of the state’s rainy season. Kiewit Infrastructure, the general contractor on the reconstruction job, rebuilt 2,270 feet of the 3,000-foot main spillway during the first year.

The second year will involve the reconstruction of the remainder of the main spillway and work on the auxiliary spillway, which had not been paved previously.


Tagged categories: concrete; Infrastructure; Locks and dams; Rehabilitation/Repair

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