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Lawmakers Question Agency Charged With Handling Oroville Dam Crisis

Kelly M. Grow/ California Department of Water Resources

An aerial view of the Lake Oroville flood control spillway, while the California Department of Water Resources releases an outflow of 35,000 cubic feet per second. Photo taken on April 21, 2017.

Kelly M. Grow/ California Department of Water Resources

Lawmakers representing communities downstream from the Oroville dam want assurances that the crisis that led to the evacuation of 200,000 people will not happen again.

The California Department of Water Resources described the steps that led up to emergency evacuation during a legislative hearing Tuesday. Water coming into Lake Oroville was 560 percent of normal in February and forecasts for those inflows kept increasing in a matter of hours.

Bill Croyle, acting director with the department, said it was unclear if the concrete on the damaged main spillway could handle it.

“We did not plan on taking water over the emergency spillway,” said Croyle.

But he told lawmakers the emergency spillway worked as designed.

“The spillway itself is pretty solid," he said. "Now the erosion of the rock down below was not, that’s the part that we’re mitigating now."

Republican Assemblyman James Gallagher of Oroville was surprised by Croyle's comments.  

“Wouldn’t you characterize that erosion back to that rock, that caused the whole emergency evacuation in the first place, 200,000 of my constituents, that’s a design flaw, right?” asked Gallagher.

"Yes," said Croyle. But Croyle tried to assure lawmakers that he expects the main spillway to be repaired by November. A $275 million contract has been awarded to Kiewit Infrastructure West Co. 

Croyle says if the spillway repair isn’t finished by November, or before the next rainy season, the agency can still manage flood waters.

"If we did nothing, we believe we can manage the flood flows next year assuming we don't have some catastrophic event," said Croyle.

Lawmakers at the hearing suggested that incentives or bonuses be given to the contractor for getting the project done on time. 

They say too much is at stake.

Janet Goodson, vice mayor for the City of Oroville, was one of two city officials from Oroville to speak at the hearing. She told lawmakers that the evacuation has had a profound effect on people who live in Oroville.

"I've had the opportunity to speak to many who were and still are to a large degree affected by the evacuation," said Goodson. "PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] is assuredly prevalent in our city."

The California Department of Water Resources plans to hold meetings for those communities downstream of the Oroville Dam. The first one in Gridley begins Thursday evening at 5:30pm at the Butte County Fairgrounds. A meeting is also scheduled in Oroville next week at the Municipal Auditorium. 

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