Updates: New storms approach, but officials confident Oroville Dam and spillways will hold up
Although Butte County sheriff’s officials say there were no reports of looting during recent evacuations below Ororville Dam, there were a handful of burglaries and robberies that targeted fleeing residents, officials said.
The incidents began Sunday night, hours after authorities ordered more than 100,000 people to flee to high ground, according to the Butte County Sheriff’s Office.
About 6:30 p.m., deputies said, Cody Bowles, 27, and Lucia Ripley, 31, carjacked the vehicle of an Oroville resident who was packing it to flee. The resident left the car running and was moving in and out of the house with items when the couple jumped into the vehicle, officials say.
When the resident confronted the pair, they ran him over, seriously injuring him, officials say. Authorities are looking for the pair.
About half an hour later, authorities said, Teran Washington 25, and a 16-year-old boy used a shotgun to blast through the front door of a local market and tried to ransack the business before they were confronted by neighbors. Though the two got away, deputies later searched their home and say they found the shotgun and arrested Washington and his young accomplice.
The next morning, Michael Matlock, 31, was seen riding an ATV in Gridley and towing a gun safe, authorities say. Tailed by state Department of Water Resources employees who became suspicious, Matlock ran away when his vehicle got stuck on railroad tracks, investigators said. The ATV, the trailer and the gun safe had all been stolen, officials said.
Matlock was identified as the ATV driver and arrested on suspicion of burglary, vehicle theft and looting during an emergency, officials said.
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.
“This reduction in flow will allow us to work on the debris pile in the spillway,” Croyle told reporters at a news conference. He estimated that 150,000 cubic yards of sediment and debris were in the pool.
The other focus by workers at the dam is the eroded emergency spillway, Croyle said. Rain began falling again in the area on Thursday and it’s not expected to stop until the middle of next week at the earliest.
The heaviest showers are expected Monday and could drop up to 10 inches of rain onto the mountains and foothills that drain into the reservoir, the National Weather Service said.
The storms aren’t likely to produce enough runoff to exceed the lake’s capacity, Croyle said.
Hundreds of thousands of tons of rocks and concrete slurry have been dropped into four fissures that threatened a retaining wall of the emergency spillway on Sunday. They were 50%, 75%, 90% and 100% full, respectively, Croyle said.
Rain falling onto the slurry and a small stream that had formed on the hillside Friday did not worry DWR engineers, he said.
It’s raining in the Oroville Dam area, though officials have said they are confident their efforts will prevent any problem.
But now another storm is set to hit Monday.
Here’s a look at what’s to come:
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.
It’s a conversation that’s gaining momentum in think tanks and government offices from Sacramento to Washington, and it touches on climate change, infrastructure spending and statewide water policy.
Wade Crowfoot, a former advisor to Gov. Jerry Brown who now leads the Water Foundation, a nonprofit research organization in Sacramento, compared the situation to the state’s years-long drought.
“This is a wake-up call,” he said. “The drought reminded us we need to use water more wisely. Oroville reminds us that we need to upgrade our infrastructure and our management to move water more wisely.”
The National Weather Service has canceled the flash-flood warning issued Sunday, when officials worried the emergency spillway at Lake Oroville might collapse.
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.
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.
The reduction will allow crews to move into the concrete channel to clear out trees, branches and other debris that has clogged the spillway and forced the downstream hydroelectric plant to go offline, Croyle said.
There was no estimate on when the power plant would be back up and running, but it will probably not be before Monday, Croyle said.
Meanwhile, the Herculean effort to reinforce the emergency spillway before more rain arrived used a caravan of helicopters and trucks to fill three deep fissures in the dirt hillside with rocks and cement.
As of Thursday, repairs on one erosion site was completed, the second was 25% filled and the third was 69% filled, Croyle said.
As long as the lake doesn’t reach capacity the emergency spillway won’t be used, Croyle said.
The incoming storm system is weaker than the one that overwhelmed the lake last week after the dam’s main spillway eroded to the point of fracture, Croyle said.
More than 100,000 residents south of the dam remain under an evacuation advisory and should be prepared to flee to higher ground should the dam overflow and the spillways collapse, authorities said.
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.
“It looks like it’s going to be a pretty good rainmaker,” said NWS meteorologist Mike Smith. “You’re looking at 10 inches from Sunday night to Monday night.”
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.
Most school districts in Butte County will resume classes Tuesday. Monday is a holiday.
Guensler said the district could reassess school closures next week.
“The safety of our staff and students is our largest priority, and we will continue to make sure we keep our schools safe,” he said.
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.
The lake is draining water at 100,000 cubic feet per second, enough to drop the lake a foot every three hours. Meanwhile, runoff from the current and previous storms is sending water into the lake at only a fraction of that pace.
The lake has dropped more than 30 feet since it overflowed during the weekend and damaged an emergency spillway that had never been used. If it drops another 30 feet by Sunday, officials hope, the reservoir should have enough space to catch water from rain and melting snow without overflowing the rest of the year.
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.”
Honea urged residents returning to the area to be prepared to leave again if necessary. “This is an ongoing situation.”
He said the state has agreed to post National Guard units in the region, part of what he called “staging of resources” should another emergency arise.
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.
That was until shelter workers found out about their wedding plans and decided to help them get hitched.
So Placer County workers spread the word on Facebook, asking for help:
“We have one last, very special donation request for our Oroville emergency evacuees,” workers wrote. “This young couple, Leotta and Henry, planned to be getting married today at their home church in Olivehurst. Instead, they’ll be honoring us today at our evacuation shelter. To help Leotta and Henry. To make this day as special as it should be, we need a wedding dress and suit ASAP! Message us if you can help, and please join us in wishing them congratulations!”
Soon after the call went out, donations from residents and area businesses began pouring into the fairground, according to workers.
By the end of the day, the bride was given a beautiful white gown and the groom a black tux and a large tree was converted into a wedding altar.
Surrounded by a large group of evacuees who remained at the shelter for the night, Litke walked down the grassy aisle to an acoustic version of the Elvis Presley hit “Can’t Help Falling In Love.”
The couple had been together 10-years before deciding to tie the knot, they said.
“I want to thank everybody,” Litke told CBS Sacramento. “I am happy to be Mrs. Rueda.”
To cap off the night, a limo and hotel room were also donated, KTXL-TV reported.
“It’s hard to imagine a better way to celebrate Valentine’s Day than the surprise wedding we were honored to witness tonight at the Placer County shelter for Oroville spillway emergency evacuees,” county workers wrote on Facebook.
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.
“It’s holding up really well,” Croyle said, but continued mass water releases could be causing hidden damage to the rocky subsurface adjacent to the concrete chute.
A swarm of trucks and helicopters dumped 1,200 tons of material per hour onto the eroded hillside that formed the dam’s emergency spillway. One quarry worked around the clock to mine boulders as heavy as 6 tons. An army of workers mixed concrete slurry to help seal the rocks in place.
At the main spillway, a different and riskier operation was underway: Despite a large hole in the concrete chute, officials have been sending a massive amount of the swollen reservoir’s water down the spillway to the Feather River in a desperate attempt to reduce the lake’s level.
The objective is to lower the level enough so that the lake can accept runoff from the upcoming storms without reaching capacity. If the reservoir filled up again, water would overflow into the emergency spillway, which on Sunday appeared to be nearing collapse, forcing the evacuation of more than 100,000 people downstream.
Croyle said there were plans to begin to taper off the water discharges at the end of the week.
Data from the Department of Water Resources shows Shasta Dam discharges began to be sharply increased on Feb. 10 and have increased substantially every day since that.
Federal emergency officials and the Trump administration approved Gov. Jerry Brown‘s requests for presidential disaster declarations for the Oroville Dam and for the 34 counties struck in January by major winter storms that caused mudslides and power outages.
“I want to thank FEMA for moving quickly to approve our requests,” Brown said in a statement from his office.
At a news briefing Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said President Trump has been “keeping a close eye” on the situation at Oroville.
“The situation is a textbook example of why we need to pursue a major infrastructure package in Congress,” Spicer said. “Dams, bridges, roads and all ports around the country have fallen into disrepair.”
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.
As tens of thousands fled low-lying regions on the Feather River this week amid warnings of flooding from the rapidly filling Lake Oroville, Sikh temples across in the Sacramento area opened their doors to evacuees.
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.”
The sheriff also asked residents to start making travel plans should they need to evacuate.
On Sunday, when erosion of the lake’s emergency spillway triggered a sudden evacuation order, area roads quickly suffered gridlock.
“That was an incredibly chaotic situation, and I was aware of it,” Honea said.
Sunday’s emergency order was lifted Tuesday afternoon, allowing more than 100,000 residents and business owners to return to their communities.
Honea said that during the evacuation order, Oroville had seen some thefts, but he insisted there was no widespread looting of properties.
“Certainly we’ve had burglaries,” he said.
Looting, the large-scale and organized theft of property from a structure, “is very rare,” the sheriff said.
Honea also said that the state has agreed to post National Guard units in the region, part of what he called “staging of resources” should another emergency arise.
After exceeding capacity this week, Lake Oroville has seen water levels drop significantly in the last three days.
The charge above shows the story, as officials bumped massive amounts of water through the damaged main spillway.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has ordered inspections of all county dams, spillways and other flood control infrastructure.
The move was sparked by the emergency at Lake Oroville in Northern California over the last week, when failures of two spillways used to lower the lake’s water level prompted mandatory evacuations.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger called for the inspections on Tuesday, and her motion was unanimously approved by the board.
The supervisors have asked the county’s Department of Public Works to provide a report on the condition of the dams within 30 days and to develop a list of priority flood-control infrastructure projects that need to be completed.
“The Oroville situation reminds us of the need to proactively evaluate our county’s risk with regard to dams and other facilities which may be prone to failure from storms, earthquakes or other foreseeable events,” Barger said in a statement.
Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale) said Wednesday that officials will investigate what went wrong at the Oroville Dam once the emergency situation is over.
In a Facebook post, LaMalfa wrote that Oroville Dam “looks stable for now.”
LaMalfa said officials are focused on providing support to residents who were evacuated Sunday night. Residents were allowed to return home Tuesday afternoon after officials said the risk of flooding had diminished.
Speaking on the House floor Tuesday, LaMalfa said the soil in front of the emergency spillway must be stabilized with rock and concrete.
“It looks good,” he said. “I think things are stable for now. We also need prayer for no more rain for a while.”
After meeting privately with emergency officials on Tuesday, state Sen. Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber) said he was told the repairs were “temporary.”
“This cannot be a case of put rocks in the spillway and it is taken care of,” he said.
Before evacuees returned home Tuesday afternoon, a woman cared for kangaroos, zebras and other animals left behind by residents.
California Highway Patrol officers were checking on abandoned properties in the affected areas on Tuesday morning, when they came across the exotic animals at Tamara Archer Houston’s family farm in Sutter County, said Officer Chad Hertzell, a spokesman for the California Highway Patrol in North Sacramento.
“It was like ‘Wow, a zebra,’ ” he said.
Archer Houston and her family had been collecting animals left during the rush to evacuate, according to the CHP.
“We had fun,” she said in a video on Facebook. “It was good.”
Among the rescued animals were two kangaroos named Kenzie and Dottie, Archer Houston said in the video, filmed by CHP officers.
“Kenzie actually sleeps inside with her owner every night in her bed in her diaper, so this has to be a whole new deal for her,” she said.
The sight was a rare treat for officers.
“We are thankful for the random acts of kindness we find out in the community,” the CHP wrote on Facebook. “Everyone seems to be coming together to take care of each other. This is what makes California so special.”
More than 100,000 people were ordered to evacuate from communities downstream of Lake Oroville on Sunday night after the emergency spillway at the dam developed a hole, prompting fears it could collapse.
Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea lifted the mandatory evacuation order Tuesday and changed it to a warning.
Although residents and business owners were allowed to return to their communities, he urged them to be prepared to evacuate again at a moment’s notice should new problems arise.
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.
The most recent 10-day forecast calls for water levels to be dropped 60 feet below the lake’s maximum of 901 feet, which would give it the ability to hold nearly 1 million acre-feet of water before overtopping a damaged emergency spillway that is still undergoing temporary repairs.
A joint plan created by the Department of Water Resources, Cal Fire and the Butte County Sheriff’s Office calls for the reduction of water releases down the reservoir’s main spillway later in the week. Water has been coursing down the damaged spillway at a rate of 100,000 cubic feet per second but will taper off to a third of that by late Friday, according to the plan.
A new series of storms forecast to arrive late Wednesday is expected to last through the weekend. Likewise, a cooling trend will drop more snowfall in the Sierra.
Officials hope to reduce the lake level to below 840 feet by next Wednesday. That level falls below what engineering documents show is normally required for flood control in wet weather. The biggest surge in water reaching the lake from the Feather Basin is forecast to arrive Tuesday, according to the planning documents.
With the mandatory evacuation order for the Feather River lifted, life in Oroville is returning to normal. As a result, the Gold Country Casino and Hotel — which has served as housing for emergency work crews — is now asking contract workers to leave by Friday so the hotel can honor prior reservations.
The workers can return Monday. The state also is operating a less luxurious emergency base camp nearby with meals provided by inmates on state firefighting crews.
Capt. Dan Olson, a spokesman from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said crews have been working around the clock to reinforce two damaged spillways at Oroville Dam before storms expected to begin as soon as Wednesday night. Officials are using drones to monitor the repairs and damage.
Meanwhile, the California Department of Water Resources is increasing water releases to meet its goal of dropping levels at Lake Oroville below 840 feet, he said.
The department has been releasing 4 inches of water an hour, which is about 8 feet a day, he said.
Here’s a snapshot of the resources involved in the repair effort:
- More than 125 construction crews
- 40 truckloads of aggregate rock
- 1,200 tons of rock deposited in eroded/damaged areas per hour
- Two helicopter drops of rocks, concrete and/or other materials every minute and a half
- A California National Guard Black Hawk helicopter is assisting with drops
The view from Sacramento
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