An hour and a half north of Sacramento, east along the Feather River, sits the tallest dam in the country — the Oroville Dam.
The dam is so large, it’s taller than the Tower Bridge is long. Its reservoir is also the second-largest surface reservoir in the state, behind Shasta Lake.
The manufactured lake and dam are responsible for delivering water and hydroelectric power throughout the San Joaquin Valley, over the Tehachapi Mountains and down to the coast of Southern California.
So, five years ago, when a crater-sized crack in the middle of the primary spillway showed up, it threatened nearly 188,000 thousand people living downstream.
Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea recalls the moment he realized that things at the dam were starting to fail.
“[A] staff member brought me her cell phone and showed me a picture that had been posted on Facebook of the spillway with that massive crater,” Honea said. “And when I looked at that, I certainly thought to myself, well, that doesn’t look routine.”
Honea sat with CapRadio’s Insight host Vicki Gonzalez to discuss what went wrong, hard lessons and how it prepared him for massive wildfires.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length
On what he knew about the Oroville Dam before the crisis
You know, in all honesty, prior to the Oroville Dam spillway incident, I was generally aware of the fact there was a dam in Butte County. Certainly knew that, knew it created Lake Oroville — but beyond that, I certainly had not given it any thought whatsoever.
And I have to admit that I wasn’t even aware of the fact that it was the tallest dam in the United States, which is a pretty amazing thing right here in Butte County.
When you prepare for a career in law enforcement, the topic of how dams work and how they could fail was not covered at all in the police academy.
And when you become a new sheriff, you got to a week-long "new sheriff school," and I can tell you that when I went through there, nobody said anything about dams and what could happen if there was a problem at one of them.
So it was something that really wasn’t on my radar prior to this event.
On when he realized something was wrong with the Oroville Dam
That was on Feb. 7. I remember I was having a meeting with the [Chief Administrative Officer] of the county, and we were talking about budgets … and I got a text message from a local individual in the media here in Butte County, and asked me if I had heard about a problem at the dam.
At that point, I hadn't. So I asked my assistant to call over to our dispatch center to find out if we had received the call, indicating there was a problem. What she was told was that we had received a recorded message from the Department of Water Resources, indicating that there was some kind of routine maintenance or some other term that didn’t really describe what was going on.
… Another staff member brought me her cellphone and showed me a picture that had been posted on Facebook of the spillway with that massive crater … and when I looked at that, I certainly thought to myself, "well, that doesn’t look routine."
But I really didn’t, at that moment, understand what the threat to our community was, and it was at that moment that I kind of began this whole effort over the course of the next couple of days to understand what the threat was, and also to understand how the dam operated and what importance it had in the California State Water Project.
So it was a steep learning curve, to say the least.
On how the crisis developed over the few days before the dam's spillway cracked
We had to work really hard to make inroads into the Department of Water Resources. It's a state agency. It's a large agency, certainly at that time. There's a lot of bureaucracy in large agencies and that's something you have to move through. They weren't, I think, prepared to manage a crisis on the scale.
And so there was frustration leading up to that point. Number one, trying to understand what the threat to the community was, but also understanding who I could talk to in the organization. And I will tell you that I had some tense conversations with members of the Department of Water [and] Resources, including the then director Bill Croyle.But after we initially met and he understood what my concerns were, which was protecting his community, and his concerns aligned with mine, we became good allies. He is somebody that I respect.
He played a critical role in keeping our community safe the day the flood control outlet began to erode. Leading up to that, as the water was coming over, and they were telling me that this is the first time that this has ever happened, and what I was left with, basically the message I was receiving, was this isn’t ideal … but we think it's going to be OK.
… So I was moving into February 12th with this idea that well, this is not the best-case scenario, but that’s what this part of the dam was designed to do, and so it’s looking OK for now.
On why the sheriff called to evacuate the area on Feb. 12
By all indications, all of the information that I received from DWR was again, "this is not ideal, but things are going the way it was designed."
And so I had been working many, many hours, and a number of days, and hadn’t been home and hadn’t slept much. So I said, "Well, I think I’m going to go home for the afternoon." As I was going around the room, talking to people, letting them know that I was going to be leaving … I heard one of the DWR officials … who was looking at a photograph of the emergency spillway. And as I approached, I heard him say, "does the sheriff know about this?" …
He started pointing to what was head cutting or erosion, and he pointed to it … and I said, "well, what is that?" … and he said, “well, we need to talk about it.”
So he and a whole group of other subject matter experts went to talk about it. When they came back, though, I sensed real alarm, real concern. And I began to question them about what the possibilities were.
And through that questioning, the scenario that was proffered was that if the erosion made it all the way back to the emergency spillway, that concrete weir, it could undermine it, causing it to topple … And when I asked if that could result in the loss of life, the response was “yes, it could.”
And then I asked, “how fast is it traveling?” They said about 20 feet an hour. And I said, Well, how close is it? It's about 20 feet away. … The bottom line is [I didn’t have a lot of time].
I recapped to the room of subject matter experts what I heard, what I understood and asked if I was misunderstanding anything. And at that point, I said, it seems like I'm going to have to order the evacuation. If anybody's got a better idea or thinks that's wrong, speak up now. Tell me now. And the room was silent, and it was at that point that I realized that I had to make that order and did so.
On how the Oroville Dam Spillway crisis helped the Sheriff prepare for the Camp Fire
I kind of foolishly said, “This is probably the biggest disaster or most significant thing that I will ever handle during my tenure as sheriff.” And I would often say that I wouldn’t wish it upon anybody, but I’m glad that I went through the experience of it.
I don’t think I really fully appreciated that until the Camp Fire came around, because certainly, the lessons that I learned, the lessons that my department learned, lessons the community learned came into play..
… I put together an internal incident management team so that we could better manage crisis and certainly never thinking that we’d manage anything bigger than the spillway.
When the Camp Fire happened, that incident was significantly, significantly more complex, devastating than the spillway situation.
The fire moved so rapidly from where it started by the time it got to Paradise, I don’t think that we would have been able to manage that response as in that evacuation as well as did. Not to say we were perfect, not to diminish or downplay the fact that 81 people lost their lives, but I think that if we hadn’t had the experience of the spillway, perhaps it could have been worse.
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified which area of the Oroville Dam was damaged and how. The dam's spillway was cracked.
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