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Impacts, Lessons from Oroville Spillway Crisis

(TNS) — The Lake Oroville spillway crisis and evacuation last February might have only lasted a few days for Yuba-Sutter residents, but the ordeal left many with unanswered questions and a newfound fear of the unknowns of living downstream from an aging water storage facility and system.

Questions about who is to blame for the spillway's failure, how it happened and what can be done to prevent it from happening again continue to resonate with local residents close to a year after the event occurred.

The Appeal-Democrat reached out to community members and officials about the incident to gauge how they were impacted by the event, what the most significant takeaway was for them and what they would like to see changed moving forward.

Their responses varied, but all seemed to agree that there are positives that can be taken from the Lake Oroville spillway incident and the events that followed.

Curt Aikens, general manager of the Yuba County Water Agency:

Aikens said it's terrible any time an emergency evacuation is ordered, but there is a "silver lining" in discovering the weaknesses with the Oroville spillways in an event that didn't overwhelm the levees or end in a disaster.

"I think the most significant thing that will come out of it, is that because of all the attention and scrutiny that this crisis sparked, this community will be safer," Aikens said. "The industry has a good record of learning from these experiences and making improvements to avoid reoccurrence."

While YCWA only operates along the Yuba River, the agency has to pay attention to what's happening along the Feather River. In order to coordinate flows at the confluence of both rivers during high-water events, the agency has to work with the Department of Water Resources and other agencies on reservoir releases.

As part of the Forecast-Coordinated Operations program, which was initiated by YCWA, the county agency works with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the National Weather Service-River Forecast Center and the DWR Flood Operations Center. Aikens said he was proud of how that coordination worked out between all of the parties involved.

"Our program ensured that during this period of historical runoff, we were all in sync about releases from both New Bullards Bar Reservoir and Lake Oroville, planning and coordinating our operations to reduce the downstream flood risk," Aikens said. "We would talk every day, look at what was happening, and consider both the short-term and long-term forecasts."

When the initial word came down that there were problems with the Lake Oroville spillway, Aikens said the agency sprang into action to make sure its own facility -- New Bullards Bar Dam -- was safe by instituting additional inspections of the spillway. After a thorough review, Aikens said the spillway at New Bullards Bar Dam is in "good condition to perform its designed function."

"We are continuing with a more in-depth investigation of the spillway to catch and correct any issues before they arise," Aikens said. "That experience really gave us great confidence in our own level of safety."

Still, the Oroville incident should serve as a strong reminder that living in Yuba-Sutter does come with significant flood risk and that residents should always be prepared, he said.

"I think this was a stark reminder that we have to be prepared and practiced for every possible scenario, and we need to make sure that we have absolute clarity about how to communicate with each other and the public in a crisis of any kind," Aikens said. "I also hope that the public realizes the importance of investing in our infrastructure, and of signing up for the county's emergency notification system, so that they can be reached by a call to their home or mobile phone, a text or email, any time there's an emergency that might impact them."

James Gallagher, Assemblyman (R-Yuba City):

It wasn't just his constituents who were affected by the incident. As a Yuba City resident himself, Gallagher said his family went through the same hectic experience many others endured last February.

"The spillway crisis brought back painful memories of flooding in our region," Gallagher said. "I witnessed the panic and devastation from the floods of 1986 and 1997. In February, I saw that same sort of panic as residents were fleeing the area. It was a terrible déj... vu. I never want to see that again, and I am resolved to see this all the way through."

Gallagher said he was thankful for the men and women that worked so hard to stabilize the emergency situation and reconstruct the spillway in such a tight window. He said he was appreciative of Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea for "making the right call" in evacuating his county when the situation took a turn for the worse.

He said one of the most significant takeaways was in how the incident united downstream communities and a diverse group of stakeholders, who have since formed a coalition to fight for things like accountability, oversight and long-term changes in operations and infrastructure at Lake Oroville.

"We knew from the onset that our region could be much more influential moving forward if we were united," he said. "Counties, cities, farm bureaus, chambers of commerce, labor and even environmental groups have been working together to advocate for change."

In terms of the negatives, Gallagher said he has not been satisfied by the answers given by DWR or the state regarding the spillways' failures.

"The lack of action on the long-term issues at Oroville frustrates me and the constituents I represent. But since February, we have been channeling our frustrations into action and urging change that we believe will better protect residents living downstream," he said.

Moving forward, Gallagher said he would like to see many things change, including improved inspections, implementing fixes in a timely manner and upgrading the state's aging infrastructure. He also said the culture at DWR needs to change.

"I am hopeful that the new director can be the catalyst for change within the department. I want DWR officials to operate that dam as if their families were living directly downstream. This history of letting the lake fill up when there's a huge snowpack and warm storms approaching is flawed," Gallagher said.

Mike Inamine, general manager of the Sutter Butte Flood Control Agency:

The Lake Oroville incident wasn't just an eye-opening experience for residents, it was a wake-up call for civil engineers around the world, Inamine said.

Inamine and his team from SBFCA have spent years and hundreds of millions of dollars on improving the levees along the west bank of the Feather River. If that wasn't the case, the events of last February could have been much worse.

"Feather River water levels (in 2017) were actually rather modest, yet the damage to unimproved levees required immediate and substantial repair," Inamine said. "Without these interim and long-term measures, these levees might have failed during this or a future flood event. The importance of building resilience -- the capacity to absorb the unexpected -- into all of our major public safety structures was highlighted during this event, not only at the Oroville spillway, but also throughout our imperfect levee system."

The positives, he said, are that the area's repaired and improved levees did well. However, the entire situation highlighted the fact that 50 years of good performance doesn't necessarily mean that a flood-control structure will hold up under different conditions the following year, he said.

"Oroville captured everyone's attention due to dramatic media coverage and the catastrophic consequences of spillway failure," Inamine said. "But even with the weaknesses exposed at Oroville, a rigorous risk assessment may well disclose that the biggest potential threat to our community is a sudden failure of a levee in downtown Yuba City in the middle of the night."

He said even though dams and downstream levees are two important components to the state's flood-control system, the two different types of structures are built, operated and maintained to "wildly different standards." That's a problem, Inamine said, and that flawed model must be corrected.

Moving forward, Inamine said SBFCA will continue pressing the federal government to make funding available for a project to repair 5 miles of unimproved levees in south Sutter County -- south of Star Bend Road.

He said the project to improve the stretch of levee, which suffered distress and damage during last winter's high-water events, was authorized by Congress in 2014 but has not received the necessary funding.

"In early 2018, we anticipate a decision to fund federal flood projects, and hopefully ours will be among them," he said.

Pat McGrath, Yuba County district attorney:

Any time a major emergency event arises in the area, county personnel — from a wide variety of departments and services — switch hats and assist in the response. That too has been the case for McGrath who has been doing so since the 1986 flood and every major event since -- including the 1988 49er Fire, the 1997 flood and the Williams fire later that summer, the Pendola Fire in 1999, and now the Oroville spillway incident and the Cascade Fire.

"From my perspective, the Oroville incident was unique — not because of how close we came to another devastating flood, but because it really brought our focus back to how fragile our water management infrastructure can really be," McGrath said. "Those of us living in Yuba County should be rightly proud of how we have improved our levee system, but those levees would be meaningless in the face of an epic dam failure."

The spillway incident was a reminder of what can happen when aging infrastructure breaks down, he said. However, Emergency Operation Centers of today are "light-years ahead" of how they were managed 20 years ago, with the help of new technology, training and increased staff levels.

With more than 30 years of experience responding to emergencies, McGrath said there isn't much he hasn't seen before. Still, he said one of the most impressive things to occur during the Oroville situation happened behind the scenes.

"Moving the Yuba County EOC from the courthouse up to the Nevada County Government Center, and being staffed and operational, in just a matter of hours was really phenomenal," he said. "For folks without any emergency operations experience, the best analogy I could give you would be as if Rideout Hospital had to shut down and relocate its entire emergency room operations to, say, the Colusa Medical Center, and had a three-hour window to complete moving its equipment over roads full of fleeing persons, get staffed and organized, be fully functional, and also to make arrangements on housing and feeding everyone over the course of several days."

Aside from the logistical feat of moving operations to a different county, he said the ordeal reinforced just how difficult the public information aspect of managing a disaster has become.

"We live in a time of instant information, and everyone demands it," McGrath said. "Unfortunately, speed does not equate with accuracy, and anyone can post anything to the net."

He said disseminating information in this day and age during an emergency situation really comes down to four things: accessing and vetting the information that comes into the EOC before disseminating it to the public, putting out credible and accurate information on social media, monitoring social media to address rumors and handling the incoming calls.

Chuck Smith, Sutter County public information officer and local historian:

"I think there has been a fundamental shift in the way we perceive Oroville Dam," Smith said. "We've gone from thinking about the dam as a structure to create a lake many of us enjoy visiting to a volcano that can go off at any minute. As a community, we're reassessing our relationship to the dam -- it's distance and its potential for a disaster."

When looking at Lake Oroville and its facilities as a whole, Smith said there are a lot of ways something can go wrong. With six different dams (the main dam, two smaller dams holding water in the reservoir, and three downstream in the forebay and afterbay) and two spillways, failure of any one of the structures would cause problems for downstream residents, he said.

Even though the dam itself was never in question, he said the failure of the emergency spillway -- the structure that experienced erosion in February and prompted the Butte County sheriff to issue a mandatory evacuation -- would have sent about 800,000 cubic feet of water per second into the Feather River channel, where the levees can only handle about 150,000 cfs at Marysville and Yuba City.

That threat, along with images of the eroded main spillway, the "nature and agony" of a no-notice evacuation, the traffic congestion and the uncertainty that comes along with an evacuation only reinforced the "new collective perspective" that the dam was less of a flood-control structure and more of a threat, he said, "and maybe that is healthy."

Smith said it's important for the community to consider what would happen if any of the region's dams were to fail -- not just Lake Oroville Dam, but also New Bullards Bar Dam and the Shasta Lake Dam. He also said dam operators -- like DWR -- and communities downstream must work together to understand the full extent of potential threats.

"A coalition of downstream interests has developed to agitate for more transparency from the Department of Water Resources, and I think DWR is learning how to be more transparent," Smith said. "I'm not sure either DWR or the downstream communities were even aware of the disconnect until potential disaster was imminent. But there's a lot of distrust, obviously."

Smith said the February incident was "anguishing," given that it was a no-notice evacuation, there was not enough highway infrastructure to evacuate 180,000 people from three counties smoothly, and there was "little to no information" coming from DWR as the day turned into night. However, on a personal level, he said he was proud of how Sutter County's emergency operations staff handled the ordeal.

"All things considered, the community responded very well to an improbable, almost impossible situation," Smith said.

James Stone, president of Nor-Cal Guides and Sportsmen's Association:

The biggest takeaway from the Lake Oroville spillway incident is the effects it had on the Feather River, Stone said.

Because of the erosion at the spillway and DWR's rapid fluctuations in releases, he said, the channel downstream has been significantly damaged -- banks eroded, wildlife habitats destroyed and massive sediment buildups causing problems for boaters trying to navigate the river.

"All of the sediment that is deposited in the lower river affects my organization and my personal livelihood as a fishing guide on the river," Stone said. "We have killed much of the wildlife, the riparian trees and the fish that once inhabited this great area. It is going to have an economic impact on our community of great proportion, and if we don't clean up the mess that we have created we are only leaving our public trusted resources worse off for our children and grandchildren."

Now the entire river needs a "major makeover," he said, or else there will be consequences, primarily in the form of environmental and fishery issues. Stone said DWR and the State Water Project contractors that rely on the water should be on the hook, both for clearing out the river and establishing a maintenance program to make sure something like what happened in 2017 never happens again.

However, there were some positives to come out of the entire ordeal, he said.

"I'm very happy that the Department of Water Resources agreed with our organization -- Nor-Cal Guides and Sportsmen's Association -- that we cannot determine how many fish were killed because of the incident," Stone said. "The California Department of Fish and Wildlife were willing to raise 2 million extra fish at the hatchery. The Department of Water Resources is funding this project that cost more than $200,000, including the required coded wire tags."

Andrew Stresser, general manager of Levee District 1:

Levee District 1 maintains the levees protecting Yuba City -- from about Queens Avenue to about 13 miles south of Yuba City. During high-water events, levee maintaining agencies like LD1 monitor levees for potential problems like seepage and boils.

Last February was Stresser's first significant storm event as general manager of LD1. Luckily for him, he said, the district's board had more than 75 years of combined experience fighting floods in the region, so he had the help to get through it.

"It was a very trying time for everyone involved, from the public to the local agencies protecting the lives and livelihoods of residents," Stresser said. "There was a great deal of frustration directed at DWR and the Oroville Dam for the lack of information we were provided."

The rumors circulating on social media didn't help, he said, but that was largely due to the fact that there was poor communication coming from the state up at Oroville. Either way, he said, his district learned a lot from the ordeal. He said the incident even resulted in downstream agencies seeing a greater need in partnering up during similar instances to share accurate information and support each other's operations.

"One of the most significant things that has come out of this event is an enhanced focus on flood control and its importance with regards to operations and maintenance of the levees," Stresser said. "And most notably, the repair of three miles of levee through downtown Yuba City."

Though much has been done to bolster the area's levee system, Stresser said he would like to see the remaining section of levee south of Tudor Road repaired, as well as the Sutter Bypass levee.

"It is also important that we annually fund and provide on-going maintenance of the levees, as well as an aggressive annual maintenance program for Oroville Dam," he said.


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