The way California runs the Oroville Dam causes risk of flooding, area mayors say

A small flow of water goes down Oroville Dam's crippled spillway in February.
A small flow of water goes down Oroville Dam’s crippled spillway in February.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

California is putting communities downstream in danger of flooding with the way it runs the now-crippled Oroville Dam, mayors and county leaders wrote this week in a strongly worded letter to Gov. Jerry Brown.

The letter — signed by the mayors of Oroville and six other communities downstream, county leaders, state lawmakers and others — comes in the wake of a February spillway emergency at the dam that forced the evacuation of 188,000 people.

That ongoing emergency “dramatically highlights the fact that those who suffer the greatest consequences from dam malfunction or failure have little or no say in the construction, operation or maintenance of that structure,” said the letter, also signed by members of local chambers of commerce and other community groups downstream.


Asked Tuesday for comment, the governor’s office and state Department of Water Resources, which operates the dam, cited steps the state was taking to keep the public informed on the battered dam, and the number of other agencies the state was working with as it repaired the damage.

“Protection of lives and property is our top priority, and our objective is to repair the Oroville spillways by Nov. 1 so we can continue keeping downstream communities safe next winter and every winter thereafter,” the statement said, in a reference to the autumn start of the next rainy season. “We will continue to work with the community and local leaders in addressing their questions and concerns.”

Signers of the letter had delivered it to Brown’s office Monday afternoon, said Nghia Nguyen, a spokeswoman for state Sen. Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber), who signed the letter along with a fellow Republican, Assemblyman James Gallagher from Yuba City.

Oroville Dam is the nation’s tallest dam, and one of the anchors of the state’s water supply system. Both spillways failed at the half-century-old structure in February under unusually heavy rain and snow melt, forcing the two-day evacuation with only an hour’s notice.

Among the strongest accusations in the letter: Local leaders’ conclusion that this winter’s crisis at the dam shows the structure “lacks the reliability to provide adequate flood protection to communities downstream.”

Other points include asking for public discussion of whether operation of the dam should be taken away from the state water agency now running it, for better communication in general from the dam’s operators and consideration of emergency-relief funds for businesses, property owners and others harmed by the dam’s troubles this winter.


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