Funding for Oroville Dam Repairs Denied


The Trump administration recently announced that it will not reimburse the state of California for much of the repair costs associated with the Oroville Dam incident, citing that the project does not meet eligibility for reimbursement—namely that the structure was poorly built and poorly maintained, rather than the incident being caused by a disaster.

According to the Lake County Record-Bee, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has approved paying $205 million for repairs, but denied an additional $306 million for the reconstruction of the dam’s main spillway.

Oroville Dam Disaster

The Oroville spillway failed on Feb. 7, 2017, setting in motion a crisis when heavy rains forced the Deparment of Water Resources to release water onto the never-used auxiliary spillway; the earthen auxiliary spillway eroded, threatening the stability of the concrete weir holding back the water of Lake Oroville.

The DWR set Nov. 1, 2017, as the initial deadline to get everything back in working order before the next rainy season; as a temporary measure, much of the spillway was filled with roller-compacted concrete. The deadline for the completion of the full reconstruction of the spillways was slated for Nov. 1, 2018, when the last concrete slabs were to be put in place.

In August, the DWR noted that a 30-foot-wide section of temporary wall along the Oroville Dam’s upper chute had collapsed, but that it did not impact project deadlines.

In November 2018, the DWR reported that the $1.1 billion spillway was ready for the winter season. The final erosion-resistant concrete slab was put in place on the main spillway on Oct. 11; crews placed 378 in 2018, amounting to 612 ERC slabs used total in the repair work. The last ERC wall was placed a week later. Work is now down to minor finishing work, including sidewall back fill and site clean-up.

Near the two-year anniversary of the disaster, in February, the spillway was rebuilt.

Repair Funding Denied

In light of FEMA’s recent decision, the state of California is planning to appeal the movement. With the money that’s already been approved, the federal government has provided a total of $333 million in funding toward the dam’s repairs—about a third of the cost.

“Two separate independent engineering reviews indicate that a variety of problems existed at the dam prior to the February 2017 floods,” said FEMA spokesperson, Brandi Richards. “FEMA’s Public Assistance can only fund work directly linked to the declared disaster, and so the grant assistance request of $306.4 million was not approved for the upper gated spillway.”

Customarily, federal law says that FEMA is allowed to reimburse states up to 75 percent of the costs associated with recovering from natural disasters. Robert Bea, a professor emeritus of civil and environmental engineering at UC Berkeley, told the Record-Bee that he thought FEMA’s decision was justified, noting that the Oroville Dam design “had some very significant deficiencies.” Among those issues, was poor rock uncovered during construction, as well as a surface-patch approach being taken with cracks, rather than adequate repairs being made.

“They have conditions under which they are mandated to distribute funding to help people recover from natural disasters,” Bea added. “But in this case, it happened because people cut corners. That’s not supposed to be covered by FEMA.”

FEMA has also noted that it will consider appeals from the state of California, and some requests for reimbursement are still under review.

On March 8, Department of Water Resources officials announced that they would be submitting more documents to support their case for requesting the full amount of federal funding. If the funding is not forthcoming, the money would likely have to come from 29 local water agencies that have contracts with the state. The Oroville Dam is a part of that infrastructure.

“FEMA’s decision not to fully reimburse DWR for Oroville Dam spillway repairs should not come as a total surprise,” said U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale.

“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Independent Forensic Report have both cited insufficient maintenance and initial design flaws as playing a part in the failure of the spillway. FEMA has reimbursed the state for eligible emergency repairs, but repairs due to maintenance failures as well as the new structures being built are ineligible for federal reimbursement legally.”


Tagged categories: Disasters; Funding; Government; Infrastructure; Locks and dams; NA; North America; Program/Project Management

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