One year later, Oroville dam crisis still weighs on residents' minds

One year later, Oroville dam crisis still weighs on residents' minds

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OROVILLE, California — A year after a failure at a spillway at the nation’s highest dam forced nearly 200,000 to flee the threat of a potential catastrophe, the effects of the near-disaster still weigh on many residents’ minds.

Life has somewhat returned to normal in Oroville, a town of around 8,000 that draws tourists to California’s Gold Country. But businesses say tourism is down, and some say they’ve been left in the dark.

“It was just panic. People were running in the streets. Cars were speeding through town,” Oroville resident Genoa Widener recalled this week of the day when the evacuation order was given last year. She said residents were told a 30-foot wall of water could be headed their way.

“The police were driving through town with their loudspeakers on warning people to get out. I saw people running from this park — with their children in their arms, just running down the street. No one knew where to go or what to do,” said Widener, who fled with her 2-year-old daughter that day.

A huge crater caused by a failure in the main spillway of the nearly 50-year-old dam, which at 770 feet is the nation’s tallest, opened in February of 2017. Rising water in the lake that was sent down an emergency channel caused rapid erosion downstream and around 188,000 people were told to leave for their safety.

The California Department of Water Resources (DWR) has said that the first phase of construction to repair the main spillway was finished in November and that the main spillway can safely pass 100,000 cubic feet per second — around the amount sent down the damaged chute on Feb. 12 after evacuation orders were issued.

An independent report published in January said the California Department of Water Resources, which manages the dam, was insular and overconfident, and that the incident was caused in part by a “long-term systemic failure” of the agency.

Related: Oroville: Cost of crisis at tallest U.S. dam reaches $870M in California

The report said that cracks in the concrete chute slab were detected almost immediately after the project was finished in 1968 but were quickly deemed “normal” — and that repeated repairs were ineffective. The principal designer of the spillway was hired directly from a post-graduate program and had no professional experience designing spillways, the report said.

The experts’ report said the near-disaster at the dam can’t be blamed on any one agency and it also faulted general industry practices. It said the crisis “is a wake-up call for everyone involved in dam safety.”

Related: Oroville Dam spillway failure: Nearly 190,000 ordered to evacuate

Dam safety programs in the United States have improved substantially since the failures of the Teton Dam in Idaho and the Kelly Barnes Dam in Georgia in the 1976 and 1977, John France, the team leader of the group that wrote the Oroville report, said in a recent interview.

“But we’ve gotten somewhat comfortable that our dam safety programs are doing well and they’re improving,” France said.

“And I think what this points out is there are some things that we’re not doing that we need to do to find some of these more subtle, harder to see weaknesses and vulnerabilities in our structures, particularly those designed 50 and 60 years ago that our current practice may not be picking up,” he said.




Image: Thousands Evacuated Near Oroville Dam As Spillway Threatens To Fail

In this handout provided by the California Department of Water Resources, the California Department of Water Resources has suspended flows from the Oroville Dam spillway after a concrete section eroded on the middle section of the spillway on February 7, 2017.