Officials at Lake Oroville reduced the rate of water release once again Friday as workers continued make repairs to a damaged spillway and clear debris from a hydroelectric plant.
State Department of Water Resources engineers will decrease the flow of water in the Oroville Dam's main spillway from 80,000 cubic feet per second to 60,000 by Saturday morning, giving crews space to dredge debris from a pool at the bottom of the spillway, said DWR acting director Bill Croyle.
Engineers had been pumping water out of the lake at 100,000 cfs for several days to make room for incoming storm runoff and to keep the lake from overflowing like it did over the weekend. That overflow badly eroded an emergency spillway and sent debris flowing into a pool at the bottom, forcing the closure of an underground hydroelectric plant.
Jeffrey Mount, a leading expert on California water policy, remembers the last time a crisis at the Oroville Dam seemed likely to prompt reform. It was 1997 and the lake risked overflowing, while levees further downstream failed and several people died.
“If this doesn’t galvanize action, I don’t know what will,” Mount said he thought at the time. But spring came, the waters receded and no changes came to pass.
Now another threat looms in Oroville, where deteriorating spillways forced widespread evacuations, and more heavy rain is around the corner. State officials have remained focused on quick fixes at the dam needed to prevent catastrophic flooding, but some already are thinking about how the crisis could spur long-term shifts in policy.
Confident that a series of incoming storms won’t overwhelm the Oroville reservoir a second time, state officials said Thursday that they would slow drainage of the lake so they can do work on an adjacent power plant.
The reservoir exceeded its capacity over the weekend, which sent water overflowing into an unlined, emergency spillway. That overflow sent soil, rock and forest debris into the Feather River below.
Construction continues on damaged Oroville Dam spillway. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
With the reservoir’s water level down more than 30 feet since Sunday and getting lower, state Department of Water Resources acting director Bill Croyle said at a news conference Thursday that engineers will slow the flow down the Oroville Dam's damaged main spillway from 100,000 cubic feet of water per second to 80,000 cfs over a period of several hours.
Spillway repairs at the troubled Oroville Dam will get their first major test this weekend after meteorologists revised their forecast and are now predicting a much wetter and warmer storm outlook for the region.
Light to moderate rain began falling across Northern California early Thursday and will probably continue for several days, according to the National Weather Service.
However, the situation will change substantially Sunday, when a larger storm arrives at Oroville and the Feather River basin.
Several schools remain closed in communities affected by the Oroville Dam emergency.
All school districts except for Chico and Paradise in Butte County will be closed through Friday. Wheatland High School, Yuba College and the Marysville Joint and Wheatland Elementary school districts in Yuba County also will be closed.
"We believe this gives our families and staff sufficient time to make 'longer-term' plans," said Supt. Craig M. Guensler of the Wheatland Elementary School District.
In the hours since a series of storms in Northern California began dropping rain on the damaged Oroville reservoir, data shows that state water officials continue to drain the lake faster than the storms are filling it.
Less than a tenth of an inch of rain has fallen in Oroville since the first of the storms arrived early Thursday, the National Weather Service reported. The area and surrounding foothills are expected to receive several inches of rain through the weekend.
But that shouldn't be enough to fill Lake Oroville back up to capacity, when the lake reaches 900 feet, the Department of Water Resources said.
Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea repeated his insistence Wednesday that there had been no looting while Oroville was under mandatory evacuation orders, but he conceded that the town had seen "burglaries."
"Certainly we've had burglaries," he said, adding that there are burglaries every day.
Honea drew a firm distinction between the two forms of theft. Looting, he said, is a massive and organized stealing of everything within a structure, and "is very rare."
Leotta Litke and Henry Rueda had planned a romantic Valentine's Day wedding at their community church in Olivehurst.
But on Sunday, the couple was forced to evacuate their home after a hole developed in an emergency spillway at the Oroville Dam. The couple went to an evacuation center at the Placer County fairgrounds in Roseville and had been staying there through Tuesday.
It appeared their dream of a Valentine's Day wedding was crushed.