Californians blast state over repairs to tallest U.S. dam

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OROVILLE, Calif. — Living in the shadow of the nation’s tallest dam, the residents of this Northern California town had a complicated relationship with state water managers long before they were ordered to evacuate last February amid fears that a broken spillway would prompt catastrophic flooding.

Decades of frustration over broken promises about the dam met fresh concerns about small cracks in a newly rebuilt spillway Wednesday at a public meeting. There, residents of the town of about 19,000 told state officials they have no credibility when they say the fractures are nothing to worry about.

Another meeting is scheduled for Thursday evening in the more populous community of Yuba City, about an hour drive south of the dam and directly downstream from it.

Nearly 200,000 people had to evacuate eight months ago because of severe damage to the spillways at Oroville Dam, which prompted fears of devastating floods. The crisis was averted, but concern lingers as the rainy winter season begins again and officials prepare the partially rebuilt spillway for potential use.

Wednesday’s meeting was the third hosted by the California Department of Water Resources in Oroville and the first since federal officials made public their concerns about a series of hairline cracks in freshly laid concrete on the new spillway. State officials said cracking is normal and federal regulators agreed that no immediate repairs are necessary, but not everyone is convinced.

“We heard that in 2009 when we saw DWR fixing cracks on the spillway, that it was completely normal, that it was no concern,” said Oroville resident Genoa Widener. “And then we were told to run for our lives. So you telling us that it’s normal is not enough.”

The trouble at Oroville Dam began in early February, when a massive crater opened up in the main spillway, a concrete chute that releases water from Lake Oroville, California’s second-largest reservoir.

Crews shut down the spillway for inspection just as a major storm dumped a torrent of rain in the Feather River basin. With the main spillway damaged and unused, the lake quickly filled to capacity and water began flowing over a concrete weir that serves as an emergency spillway. It had never before been used.

The water eroded the barren hillside beneath the concrete, leading to fears the weir would collapse and release a wall of water that would swamp communities and destroy levies for miles downstream.

State officials have said the hundreds of small cracks in new concrete are different from the cracks that experts believe may have contributed to erosion that caused the original spillway to buckle.

The state water agency had a frosty relationship with Oroville for decades before the town was forced to evacuate. Many residents say the agency failed to live up to promises of grand recreational and tourism amenities when they dammed the Feather River to create Lake Oroville. Instead, they say, they endure the danger so the state can store and deliver water for parched Southern California and generate power with hydroelectric turbines.

“You took our water, you took our power, you took our land and we got nothing,” said Debbie Norris of Oroville.

State officials have closed a scenic road that spans the top of the dam during spillway construction and have deferred a decision about whether it will ever be re-opened due to safety concerns.

Several residents said the road closure has cut off access to beloved recreational areas.

“The way of life I wanted, which is why I moved to Oroville, has been taken away from me,” Gail Hastain said in an interview. “DWR has taken advantage of this town.”

Hastain said she’s lost access to a bike path she loved and a walking trail that her mother was able to navigate in her wheelchair.

Construction crews are working quickly to rebuild the main spillway and fortify the barren hillside in case the emergency spillway needs to be used again — a project estimated at about $500 million. About a third of the spillway has been fully rebuilt so far, while the rest has been fortified for the winter with plans to finish next year.

Officials drained Lake Oroville about 80 feet (24 meters) below its typical level for the start of winter, providing extra reservoir storage for incoming water from winter rain and spring snowmelt. On Wednesday, the lake was 200 feet below its maximum capacity.