Oroville Dam: Trump Administration Denies California Repair Funds

FEMA has approved paying $205 million, but denied an additional $306 million for reconstruction of the dam’s spillways, saying that those funds don’t meet federal eligibility rules.

by Paul Rogers, The Mercury News / March 8, 2019
Water flows through break in the wall of the Oroville Dam spillway, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017, in Oroville, Calif. The torrent chewed up trees and soil alongside the concrete spillway before rejoining the main channel below. Engineers don't know what caused what state Department of Water Resources spokesman Eric See called a "massive" cave-in that is expected to keep growing until it reaches bedrock. AP/Rich Pedroncelli

(TNS) - The Trump Administration has informed California that it will not reimburse the state for the majority of repair costs that state officials have requested to help pay for repairs at Oroville Dam, after a disaster there two years ago.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has approved paying $205 million, but denied an additional $306 million for reconstruction of the dam’s spillways, saying that those funds don’t meet federal eligibility rules.

Under federal law, FEMA can reimburse states up to 75 percent of the costs of cleaning up after natural disasters. But in an investigation done after the main spillway failed at Oroville — the nation’s tallest dam — in February 2017, causing the evacuation of 188,000 people, an independent team of experts concluded that poor construction in the 1960s and inadequate maintenance were major causes of the failure, rather than heavy storms.

Work on the main spillway was finished in November. Construction continues on a project to rebuild and strengthen the emergency spillway.

U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Chico, whose district includes the dam, said the federal government is justified in withholding the money from the state Department of Water Resources.

“FEMA’s decision not to fully reimburse DWR for Oroville Dam spillway repairs should not come as a total surprise,” LaMalfa said in a statement.

“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Independent Forensic Report have both cited insufficient maintenance and initial design flaws as playing a part in the failure of the spillway,” he added. “FEMA has reimbursed the state for eligible emergency repairs, but repairs due to maintenance failures as well as the new structures being built are ineligible for federal reimbursement legally.”

In a brief statement, FEMA officials did not specify why they denied the funding, but noted that after presidential disaster declarations, the agency can reimburse local governments for the costs to repair or replace “disaster-damaged” public facilities.

“Additional requests for reimbursement are still under review,” the agency said.

On Friday, officials at the state Department of Water Resources announced they plan to submit more documents to make the case that the full amount of their request for federal help should be granted.

If the federal government does not provide that money, it probably would have to come from local water agencies around California that have contracts with the state to buy water through the State Water Project, of which Oroville Dam is a key part.

Those agencies include the Santa Clara Valley Water District, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California in Los Angeles,the Alameda County Water District in Fremont, and others.

“We appreciate the hard work and commitment of FEMA staff, however are disappointed in some of their initial interpretations regarding cost eligibility,” said Joel Ledesma, DWR deputy director of the State Water Project in a statement. “Our reconstruction work was necessary to safely operate the main spillway and ensure functionality of the emergency spillway. DWR plans to appeal FEMA’s determination as we believe all costs should be eligible for federal reimbursement.”

Another Republican lawmaker who represents the Oroville area also agreed with the federal ruling. In a post on Twitter, Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Chico, said: “Despite some of the rhetoric, this was a failure of government — not a natural disaster.”

The local water agencies who will likely have to pay the difference, however, said they disagree with the Trump administration decision and support state efforts to appeal it.

“We support DWR and recognize the agency has worked tirelessly to protect public safety and to successfully repair the Oroville spillways,” said Jennifer Pierre, general manager of the State Water Contractors, an organization representing the 29 local agencies that have State Water Project contracts.

“We understand that DWR worked directly with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and multiple independent experts to determine the appropriate actions necessary to repair the facilities and ensure the structure could operate as originally intended,” she added. “That is why we support DWR’s decision to appeal the partial FEMA reimbursements. We firmly believe that federally-required repairs to Oroville after a federally-declared emergency should qualify for full federal assistance.”

Earlier, FEMA reimbursed the state $128 million for debris removal and other costs directly related the emergency response in the days during, and after the crisis.

LaMalfa also attempted to link the FEMA decision to California’s proposed high-speed rail project, which was begun more than a decade ago under former governors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown, and recently scaled back by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

“California prioritized other spending initiatives, such as high-speed rail, over fixing deficiencies of Oroville Dam that led to this crisis,” LaMalfa said. “And FEMA is likely to withhold future public assistance funding as a result. That will prove to be a costly mistake. We don’t want FEMA to come up short on other disaster assistance by misapplying funds in this case of dam mismanagement, born out in the forensic report.”

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