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.
Even after Lake Oroville's water level is reduced by a targeted 50 feet, water managers intend to further drain the reservoir so that it can absorb major rain storms and spring snowmelt, according to state planning documents.
Although officials say the risk of flooding below Oroville Dam has dropped substantially since the weekend, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea warned area residents Wednesday that they remained in "an emergency situation."
During an afternoon news conference, Honea urged residents to "maintain vigilance" as dam operators continued to drain Lake Oroville before a string of storms began soaking the region again Wednesday evening.
"They need to pay attention," Honea said of residents. "It's important for people to be prepared. This is an opportunity for them to get things together, so that if the risk level increases and there is a need for us to issue an evacuation order, they'll have the things they need and they'll be able to do that quickly and efficiently."
Even as rain began to fall in Northern California on Wednesday, state officials said the storms forecast over the next few days will not be enough to test the integrity of the Oroville Dam or its two damaged spillways.
Bill Croyle, acting director of the state Department of Water Resources, called the storms "fairly small" and said the public "won't see a blip in the reservoir" levels, now dropping about eight inches an hour.
Croyle said it was not the weather he was concerned about so much as the damage done to the dam's already compromised main spillway during days of sustained heavy releases of water.
Each morning before the break of dawn, Nirmal Singh makes his way to a small stage at the Shri Guru Ravidass Temple, adorned with roses and silk. There, the priest sits and reads prayers from a centuries-old Indian text to open the day.
It's usually a quiet affair, with words spoken in Punjabi to an empty hall the size of a large backyard — a solemn start at the small Sikh temple that sees few people outside of weekend services.
But this week, Singh had company. Bodies shuffled under blankets in front of him. On Tuesday a Mexican couple and their kids woke up to his right, revealing the head scarves they wore in respect of Sikh traditions. In a nearby room, an African American man was also was getting up to the sounds of prayer.