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
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.
You can check out the full report HERE or read the
executive summary HERE.
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