Butte County prosecutor wants state agency fined up to $51 billion for Oroville spillway failure

An aerial view of the water flowing out of the Oroville Dam main spillway in February 2017.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Butte County prosecutors are seeking up to $51 billion in fines and penalties against California’s water agency for damage caused to local river-based wildlife after the Oroville Dam spillway failure last year, officials said.

In a civil complaint filed Wednesday, Dist. Atty. Mike Ramsey accused the Department of Water Resources of failing to build the Oroville Dam’s spillway on sturdy bedrock, which led to its rapid deterioration last February amid the heaviest winter storms the region had seen in years.

Officials at the department declined to comment Thursday.

The spillway failure forced the state to dump hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water into the Feather River below, and with it, concrete debris, silt, lime and other materials that killed fish and other wildlife, Ramsey said.


The complaint seeks between $34 billion and $51 billion in fines for the agency.

The Department of Water Resources is being prosecuted under a fish and game code that fines an entity $10 per pound of material illegally dumped into a waterway. According to the water agency, about 1.7 million cubic yards of debris flowed off the spillway and adjacent earthen hillside during the emergency. A cubic yard of such material weighs between 2,000 and 3,000 pounds, Ramsey said.

Ramsey called it ironic that the state is being prosecuted under one of its oldest environmental laws, because the law was created after hydraulic mining in Northern California choked the area’s rivers — including those around Butte County — with silt and mud.

The filing also seeks to enjoin the state from ever allowing this to happen again. The spillway is currently being reconstructed with better, stronger materials and on a sturdier foundation, engineers have said.

“The parties can fashion an agreement to make sure that should they plan to reconstruct — which is well on its way — that it’s sufficient to give the local folks some degree of confidence,” Ramsey said. “As you might know, [that] is not high.”

After last year’s emergency, the depth of the Feather River in Butte County decreased from 70 feet to 40 feet, and countless fish died when state wildlife officials tried to rescue them from the choking silt, Ramsey said.

A separate civil claim has been filed by farm owners farther south after large portions of the banks of the Feather River collapsed when the Department of Water Resources abruptly diminished the dam’s water releases to make repairs.


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