Home / Environmental News / Records Show Govt Knew of Dangers of Oroville Dam for YEARS — Did Nothing to Fix It

Records Show Govt Knew of Dangers of Oroville Dam for YEARS — Did Nothing to Fix It

Nearly 200,000 people had to be evacuated from the floodplain beneath Oroville Dam, when an earthen emergency spillway threatened to disintegrate under the sheer volume of floodwater putting pressure on the structure — the exact scenario federal and state officials were cautioned about over a decade ago.

But they didn’t heed the warning.

“Three environmental groups — the Friends of the River, the Sierra Club and the South Yuba Citizens League — filed a motion with the federal government on Oct. 17, 2005, as part of Oroville Dam’s relicensing process, urging federal officials to require that the dam’s emergency spillway be armored with concrete, rather than remain as an earthen hillside,” reports the Mercury News.

That motion was filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission when the groups found Oroville Dam — the tallest in the United States and completed in 1968 — did not meet modern safety standards. Heavy rains and flooding, they said, would overwhelm the primary concrete spillway and force waters over the emergency spillway — but the volume could erode the earthen chute and inundate communities nearby.

Worse, such an extreme event could cause failure, or “loss of crest control.”

“A loss of crest control,” the environmental groups asserted, “could not only cause additional damage to project lands and facilities but also cause damages and threaten lives in the protected floodplain downstream.”

Considering the risk to life and limb to those situated beneath the looming dam, the suggestions seemed pertinent, but officials — bowing to budgetary and financial concerns — didn’t listen.

“FERC rejected that request, however, after the state Department of Water Resources, and the water agencies that would likely have had to pay the bill for the upgrades, said they were unnecessary,” the Mercury News explains. “Those agencies included the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which provides water to 19 million people in Los Angeles, San Diego and other areas, along with the State Water Contractors, an association of 27 agencies that buy water from the state of California through the State Water Project. The association includes the Metropolitan Water District, Kern County Water Agency, the Santa Clara Valley Water District and the Alameda County Water District […]

“A filing on May 26, 2006, by Thomas Berliner, an attorney for the State Water Contractors, and Douglas Adamson, an attorney for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, discounted the risk. It urged FERC to reject the request to require that the emergency spillway be armored, a job that would have cost tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars.”

Officials blew off concerns as hyperbolic since the earthen spillway had been designed to accommodate 350,000 cubic feet per second, and — in extreme circumstances — could safely sustain heavy damage without being completely destroyed.

“It is important to recognize that during a rare event with the emergency spillway flowing at its design capacity, spillway operations would not affect reservoir control or endanger the dam,” wrote John Onderdonk, a senior civil engineer with FERC, in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s San Francisco Office, in a July 27, 2006, memo to his managers.

“The emergency spillway meets FERC’s engineering guidelines for an emergency spillway. The guidelines specify that during a rare flood event, it is acceptable for the emergency spillway to sustain significant damage.”

On Sunday, with the main concrete spillway having partially collapsed earlier in the week, swiftly rising waters had to be released over the emergency spillway to relieve pressure — for the first time it has been used in its five-decade history.

Given officials’ confidence in the earthen spillway, Sunday’s flows of between 6,000 and 12,000 cubic feet per second — just five percent of what FERC declared safe — should not have caused issues or forced emergency evacuations.

Those who warned of the dangers in 2005 saw their fears nearly come to fruition.

“We said ‘are you really sure that running all this water over the emergency spillway won’t cause the spillway to fail?’” Ron Stork of Sacremento’s Friends of the River told the Mercury News. “They tried to be as evasive as possible. It would have cost money to build a proper concrete spillway.

“I’m feeling bad that we were unable to persuade DWR and FERC and the Army Corps to have a safer dam.”

Eric See, California Department of Water Resources spokesman, denied reports there had been any lapse in safety at Oroville Dam, despite reports of the over-decade-old warning to FERC.

Now, a temporary break in storms has provided an opportunity for workers to shore up the spillways and prepare for a predicted eight to ten inches of rain forecast this week.

“I’m sad and hoping, crossing my fingers, that they can prevent the reservoir from failing,” said Stork. “I don’t think anybody at DWR [Department of Water Resources] has ever been this close in their careers to such a catastrophic failure.”

  • Bruce_Mitchell

    Governor Brown should be kicking some asses right about now. The facts cited in this excellent report show without doubt that state water agencies and engineers clearly failed in their duty to protect the public, and at immense cost to the 200,000 people affected by the evacuation.

  • LotharLocnar

    The gov’t refuses to spend money that could look like a useless endeavor if the damn doesn’t erode on their watch.

    • MarkPitrone


    • Roger.G

      They have plenty of money for illegal aliens though. If I were them I would secede from the United States NOW!


    Kinda like people not listening when the President says we need to tighten the borders. 1 rape is 1 too many; 1 death is 1 too many. It’s a proven fact that both occur from these 5-6 countries the President attempted to ban. People are not listening – just rioting because someone is paying them to do so.

    • skypockets

      Perhaps we should ban the American male, as they are responsible for so many incidents of sexual assault and rape. I hate these these of comments. Ridiculous.

    • The Cat’s Vagina

      Fuck off and step on a Lego, you dumb, xenophobic piece of shit!

      Fuckin’ CUNT.

    • Bodiddy

      Watch out for those thrown off dumb ass trolling Liberals!

    • Omaroams

      Mary, it’s not a “proven fact” — it’s not a fact at all… oh, wait. Yes it is. It is an “alternative fact”. That means it’s not true, but we want people to think it’s true so we tell a lie and when it gets repeated a lot, it becomes a fact because you hear it so often it must be true. No. That’s not the way it works. If you tell your neighbor that the pastor is having an affair with a high school girl he is counseling and the rumor spreads all through the neighborhood… it may cost a good man his job and ruin the reputation of a young woman… but it is not truth. No matter how many people share the lie and believe it – it is still a cruel lie. It hurts people who didn’t deserve to be hurt — and once that damage is done… all the remorse in the world can’t fix it. You will have to answer for that – not to me, but to the one who told you judge not lest ye be judged…

      No one is paying me to march. No one is paying me to write to you. No one is paying me to try to fight for truth to have a chance to live in America again.

      You look like a kind person, think about the damage you do by spreading rumors without checking to see if they are true. People are angry. They are angry that so much that America stands for is being destroyed. They are angry that a woman who has no clue about public education was just hired by us to run our schools… and at a very nice salary. I think you could do a better job and I’d rather see you get the money than some billionaire born woman who doesn’t care about my grandchildren getting an education. She paid President Trump millions to get the job. That’s not something that used to be acceptable in the America I grew up in… and THAT is not an alternative fact. She said she donated the money to his campaign and expects to see a return on her INVESTMENT.

      I know you probably find most of the people you talk to agree with you, but please… try to look at a few different places that give both sides so you can decide for yourself which sounds true. I’m not saying you need to agree with me, but you need to stop repeating stories that are made up.

  • skypockets

    Yeah, they always know. Levees in Louisiana come to mind. Human safety never stacks up against money with the government.

  • AbItCrAzE

    I say: there is plenty of money there in California, ask all your demo crap’s to donate their money to raise the funds you need to fix the problem & Also get all the illegal immigrants to provide the labor, planning & engineering for the repair project to save the 300,000+ endangered lives of your (legal or not) citizens.

    • skypockets

      Pops and buzzes

    • Omaroams

      Sweetie, the people who are evacuating? They are up north. You know who’s up north? Trump voters.

      If Trump decides to withhold Federal funds — he is destroying the homes and communities of people who supported him.

      If California decides not to pay Federal taxes – because they are cut off… they will have plenty of money to make repairs. It will just be tough for Trump to lose those billions I’m sure he planned on using for us… to pay for his meals a Mar largo…

      • Peggy Qualls-Babakhanian

        Sweetie, why not get the money from all those smart-ass celebrities…and Illegals aliens doing there taxes??…Thousands of Americans money is going out to pay tax refunds to people who had no right to be here to begin with…
        I say President Trump fix the damage on the dam…But don’t let Brown hands touch the money…Use only real Americans, and only USA material to repair the dam…Winning!!! more jobs for Real Americans… Everytime there’s a protest, or celebrities opening there mouth is another vote for President Trump..If God be for us, who will be against us..
        Liberals can protest , rioters, burn, steal , do it all but they will not win ….

        • The Cat’s Vagina

          Sweetie, do you not understand what the word “refund” means?

          • Peggy Qualls-Babakhanian

            Sweetie, Refunds are for Americans not Illegals aliens…Now Sweetie, you know who tax refunds are for….You just got a grown-up answer… Do you think you can handled that much information at onces? …You might have to unhand your vagina and think…

  • crankyoldone

    Lol …. The Sierra Club . They are to busy promoting abortion to do anything about nature or preserving life .

  • Ed

    Claire Bernish FYI:You do know that there is no ON/OFF switch for the dam’s emergency spillway. When the reservoir fills up water goes over the dam’s emergency spillway. The only way to not have this happen is to let water go without making power from it. The Corps of Engineers let the reservoir fill to dangerous level out of GREED $$$.

  • TheCogitator

    California apparently decided to spend the money on people who are in this country illegally rather than repair the dam. Will any of them be held responsible should a break occur? We all know the answer is — of course not. If a private company owned the dam, the company would be sued into oblivion, and some of the people may likely face criminal charges. Why are public and private officials treated so differently?