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Oroville Review Board Addresses Assessment

Thursday, August 9, 2018

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The California Department of Water Resources met recently with its newly appointed Community Ad Hoc Group and Independent Review Board as part of a Comprehensive Needs Assessment aimed at ensuring the safety of its Oroville Dam amid criticism of the agency’s practices.

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

The CNA process comes after last year's crisis at the dam, when concrete damage to the main spillway led officials to use the auxiliary spillway for the first time.

The IRB, consisting of four engineers from around the country who specialize in areas related to dam structures (including hydraulic structures, engineering geology and operations), issued a memo evaluating efforts to improve the dam over the past 18 months, since the crisis in which both the main spillway and its emergency backup were compromised.

About the Board

The board, convened by DWR, largely supported the agency’s efforts in its report, signaling its approval of the CNA process, which is to produce recommendations on six (or possibly seven) tasks by the end of 2019. The tasks include evaluations of the dam spillways’ capacity and the entertainment of possibly adding an additional spillway or additional low-level outlet capacity. The assessment will also look at the potential to add more instrumentation to monitor the structure.

Some of the CNA tasks stem from recommendations from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in the wake of the 2017 incident. The IRB’s comments on the tasks include a focus on a “holistic” approach to quality management and an insistence that specific criteria for evaluating the spillway system be established. (The board notes that by some definitions, an auxiliary spillway can be considered to be effective even if it allows for some erosion in a flood situation, but doesn’t compromise the structure. Oroville’s auxiliary spillway was an earthen hillside prior to the crisis, and eroded so deeply when used for the first time, officials feared the concrete weir could give way, leading to an uncontrolled release.)

DWR Controversy

The assessment comes after a series of scathing reports on the dam crisis itself and DWR’s handling of it: Early this year, the forensic team charged with investigating the incident called the dam issue the result of a “systemic failure,” including an “inadequate priority for dam safety” on the part of the agency.

In May, legislators discussed putting the dam and other water structures in the state under the jurisdiction of a new commission that would supersede the DWR.

In January, the city of Oroville filed suit against the DWR for mismanagement and claiming that the agency and State Water Contractors, a group of authorities overseeing dams in the state, acted as a “water mafia,” ignoring maintenance needs and requests with impunity.

Several other suits followed, including one filed by Butte County that an appeals judge ruled last week may continue. The DWR was attempting to have the civil suit, seeking up to $51 billion in damages, thrown out.


Tagged categories: concrete; Infrastructure; Locks and dams; Project Management

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