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. American Whitewater is joining with others to call for a hearing into these issues and ensure that the public has a voice in the process. Learn more about how you can help our efforts below…
What Happened at Oroville Dam
In early February, a hole developed in the main spillway at Oroville Dam. As water was released down the spillway, the hole grew into a gaping sinkhole, and eventually the spillway broke in half and the flows ate into the underlying hillside down to the bedrock. Oroville reservoir, which sits behind the tallest dam in the US, rapidly filled as officials shut off the spillway in order to assess the damage. For the first time in its history, the reservoir filled so much that a secondary, “emergency spillway” was used. Rather than being an actual spillway, the structure is best described as a concrete lip at the edge of the reservoir with a bare hillside downstream. As water flowed over the concrete lip, it severely eroded the hillside, threatening the integrity of the lip and the reservoir. Residents only had an hour of notification before the spillway was projected to fail and release a 30 foot tall wall of water downstream. Fortunately, officials were able to release enough water through the severely damaged main spillway and the concrete lip stayed intact.
In the process 188,000 residents downstream were evacuated for several days. The costs to the region and its residents are immense. Mending the facilities at Oroville Dam will only repair part of the problems caused by this disaster. In addition to the trauma of being evacuated on a moments notice, many residents lost nearly a week of work. Local emergency crews were on high alert during the evacuation. There’s been increased wear and tear on the region’s roads from repair and emergency crews. Additionally, the City of Oroville depends on recreation to support its economy, and the incident has harmed the fishery, deterred visitors and damaged downstream parks and trails.
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, 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.
In the months since the spillway failure, DWR and FERC have withheld documentation from the public relating to what happened and plans for the future.
Last week American Whitewater joined with our partners to request that FERC and DWR conduct their
decision-making activities in a transparent fashion that allows for public participation and
ensures that the public can have full confidence that Oroville Dam will be made safe. (You can
view that document at the link to the right.) Although DWR has recently announced a series of
public meetings, and has begun to release some previously classified documents, we request that
the agencies hold technical workshops for the public. American Whitewater is also calling for a
Congressional oversight hearing.
Join with American Whitewater and others calling for a Congressional oversight hearing about why the Oroville spillways failed, what the full impacts are (beyond damage to the spillways) and how to mitigate the damage. Additionally, we’re calling for a process moving forward that is as open and transparent as possible.
On Wednesday, April 19th, 9 members of Congress requested that the Government Accountability
Office (GAO) review the role that FERC’s Division of Dam Safety and Inspection played in
the crisis, including its evaluation of the dam and related structures in the years leading up to
You can view that letter here.
What can you do? Reach out to your Representatives today, either thanking those that signed onto the GAO request letter, encouraging those that didn’t to join the effort, and asking all to call for an oversight hearing. We’ve made it easy for you to reach out here, and will target your message appropriately based on your zip code.
The incident at Oroville highlights the need to properly maintain and repair our nation’s
aging infrastructure. As some call for investing our resources in developing new hydropower
projects, American Whitewater calls upon decision-makers to focus on ensuring that our existing
infrastructure is safe.
Thanks for taking action today!
FERC filing requesting transparency regarding Oroville Dam