Conservation Groups Release New Report on Oroville Dam Spillway Incident
By: Evan Stafford
September 19, 2017 – American Whitewater co- authored a new report, The Oroville Dam 2017 Spillway Incident: Lessons from the Feather River Basin, alongside Friends of the River, the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, and the South Yuba River Citizens League. Earlier this year, two spillways at Oroville Dam on the Feather River in California became severely compromised, prompting the evacuation of approximately 188,000 people. Officials predicted that a catastrophic failure of one of the spillways was imminent, warning that a wall of water 30 feet tall could rush downstream and wipe out communities in its path. Fortunately, these predictions did not come to pass, but the impact of the failure of these spillways continues to have a significant impact on the river and downstream communities like Oroville.
As officials determine the future of the spillway and make repairs, the public (especially those across the U.S. who live downstream of high-hazard dams) has a right to understand what happened, have a full assessment of the impacts (beyond damage to the spillways), and know what the future holds. This report makes dozens of recommendations for bringing waterworks into the 21st Century in a comprehensive review of California dams, flood manuals, floodplains, and regulatory delay.
The danger presented by the Oroville facilities should not have come as a surprise to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) or the owner and operator of the dam, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR). During the hydropower relicensing process for Oroville Dam in 2005, Friends of the River (FOR), Sierra Club and South Yuba River Citizens League (SYRCL) intervened, requesting that FERC order measures to ensure that the emergency spillway would function properly in the event that it needed to be used. American Whitewater, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance and others weighed in in 2006, supporting these recommendations. FOR et al. pointed out that the emergency spillway and the hill downstream were not armored and predicted that significant erosion would occur if it was used, damaging structures downstream.
At the time, DWR assured stakeholders, including American Whitewater, that the secondary spillway was resting on solid bedrock, could withstand flows up to 350,000 cfs, and erosion would be minimal. FERC accepted this analysis, and concurred that no further action was needed. Despite these assurances, the spillway came very close to failing when flows reached just 10,000 cfs.