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City of Oroville Sues State Over Dam Crisis

Monday, January 22, 2018

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The City of Oroville, California, has moved to sue the state’s Department of Water Resources in the wake of last year’s failure at the Oroville Dam, alleging mismanagement as well as a toxic work culture that intimidated workers, discouraging whistle-blowing.

The suit, brought Wednesday (Jan. 17) in Butte County Superior Court, includes allegations that State Water Contractors, an association of local water authorities throughout California, acted as a “water mafia,” dictating what maintenance would and wouldn’t be done regardless of what authorities including the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission called for.

Oroville Dam spillway
Images: Kelly M. Grow / California Department of Water Resources

When erosion at the top of the emergency spillway threatened to cause a failure of the concrete weir, a series of controlled low-volume releases on the damaged main spillway staved off the danger until the heavy rains that had created the problem in the first place receded.

The city argues in its suit that the DWR was “on notice” regarding vulnerabilities in both the main spillway and the emergency spillway at the dam, the tallest in the U.S.

Emergency Spillway Problems

The FERC relicensing process for the hydroelectric dam, which took place from 2000 through 2005, brought arguments from citizen and environmental groups that the emergency spillway should be paved with concrete; it had always existed as an earthen hillside, and had never been used in its history.

The DWR declined to do so, and when the main spillway failed last February, it was employed for the first time, causing erosion that nearly caused the collapse of the concrete weir holding the water back at the top of the spillway. Concerns over a possible uncontrolled release triggered the temporary evacuation of about 188,000 people downstream on the Feather River.

A series of controlled low-volume releases on the damaged main spillway staved off the danger until the heavy rains that had created the problem in the first place receded.

Oroville Dam spillway damage

Damage to the concrete spillway became evident Feb. 7, 2017.

The suit points out that during the relicensing process, DWR argued that specific issues related to dam safety were not appropriate to discuss. The city also says that DWR insisted the main spillway was on solid bedrock—an assertion that not only has been disproven since, but that was known to be false even before the dam was built.

The suit alleges that between 1998 and 2016, a series of maintenance issues, including spalling concrete, corrosion and debris clogging drains, were ignored or put off. It quotes one inspection report from 1996 that said maintenance work was requested but “they never get to it. They are presently busy constructing a float for the Fourth of July fireworks show.”

Harassment Issues

Beyond maintenance and general management issues, the suit alleges a toxic culture at the DWR in which African-American workers and women were intimidated via slurs and incidents, such as one in which a noose was left in a meeting room for two to three months before an African-American employee at whom the gesture was reportedly aimed removed it himself.

Earlier this month, the forensic team hired by DWR to investigate the failure at the dam concluded that the root cause was a systemic failure related to an “inadequate priority for dam safety.” The main spillway was built on poor quality rock and designed by an inexperienced engineer, and over the decades, repairs were ineffective.

The forensic team declined to place blame for the crisis solely on DWR, but did note that the agency was “somewhat overconfident and complacent regarding the integrity of its civil infrastructure.”

Last May, University of California Berkeley civil engineering professor emeritus Robert Bea, an expert in major failures, issued an independent report concluding that cultural problems within DWN exacerbated physical issues at the dam. Bea said at a state hearing that the dam failed due to “an accumulation of flaws and defects that started in design, propagated into construction, then propagated into operations and maintenance, and … it failed far below what it was even originally designed for.”


Tagged categories: Infrastructure; Lawsuits; Locks and dams; NA; North America; Program/Project Management

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