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The Multitude of Oversight for California’s Oroville Dam—Will this Become a Model for Dams throughout the State and in the West?

The California Department of Water Resources (DWR) is overseeing repairs to the Oroville Dam in coordination with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the California Division of Safety of Dams (CDSD). In early 2017 FERC required DWR to arrange for an independent risk analysis of the Oroville Dam. In July 2018, DWR established a local ad hoc committee in an effort to improve the DWR’s relations with the community.

In September 2018, the California Legislature created a 19-member commission to provide a forum for residents and state officials to discuss reports, maintenance and other ongoing issues related to the Oroville Dam; and, Congress has enacted legislation requiring an independent risk analysis of the Oroville Dam, and of the DWR’s dam safety practices.



The world witnessed near-disaster at the Oroville Dam that started with a massive failure of the primary spillway at the nation’s tallest dam in February 2017, threatening a 30-foot wall of water that would have washed away everything in its path. The water released from rising Lake Oroville caused a huge crater to develop in the main spillway. That triggered diversion to the emergency spillway, causing rapid downstream erosion and forcing nearly 200,000 people living and working downstream from the Oroville Dam to flee from the threat of an apparently imminent catastrophe. Reports from the scene were of panic in the streets as police drove through the town warning people to evacuate immediately, out of concern that, if the failure worsened, the Town of Oroville—and everything in it—might simply cease to exist. The scene was reported to be of near chaos, with people abandoning everything but their children, running through the streets and speeding away in cars, only to be caught up in massive traffic jams. It was anything but an organized evacuation.

Those that experienced the near failure claim to have not forgotten. Tourism in this part of California’s Gold Country has declined and some residents have moved away, afraid to live in the shadow of the Oroville Dam and vowing never to return.

In the meantime, Kiewit Corporation is proceeding with repairs to the Oroville Dam under a contract that was awarded in April of 2017 at $275.4M, had grown to $870M at the beginning of this year, and is now projected to exceed $1.1B by 2019. DWR reportedly plans to ask the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to assist with up to 75% of the total costs of repairs.


The ASDCO-USSD Team Investigation

In the aftermath of the near-catastrophe FERC required DWR to engage an independent forensic team (ASDCO-USSD Team) composed of representatives of the Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO) and the United States Society of Dams (USSD) to develop findings and opinions on the cause of the incident. The ASDCO-USSD Team issued a nearly 600-page report (ASDCO-USSD Report) in January of 2018 that accused DWR of being insular and overconfident, partially attributing the incident to a “long-term systemic failure” on the part of DWR, both in terms of design and construction. The ASDCO-USSD Report noted that cracks had been detected in the main spillway almost immediately after it had been constructed in 1968, though DWR had deemed them to be “normal,” and that repeated attempts to repair the cracks had been ineffective and potentially detrimental. Regulatory and general industry practices to recognize and address inherent spillway design and construction weaknesses, poor bedrock quality, and deteriorating main spillway chute conditions were also identified as contributing causes of the incident.

Despite the many design, construction, inspection, operational, oversight and management causes identified by the ASDCO-USSD Team, DWR remained the focus of much of the criticism for the incident.


The Local Ad Hoc Committee

In an effort to improve its standing with the residents of Oroville, Butte County, the State of California and the federal government, in July 2018, California Senator Nielsen and Assemblyman Gallagher, working in conjunction with DWR, established a local ad hoc committee (Ad Hoc Committee), that was hoped would improve the DWR’s relationship with the community and provide a forum for local input on the long-term changes under consideration for the Oroville Dam.

The Ad Hoc Committee, which is composed of Oroville residents, Butte County officials, a representative of UC Berkley’s Center for Catastrophic Risk Management other technical experts, and representatives of DWR, plans to meet quarterly.

In mid-August, the Ad Hoc Committee sent its initial suggestions to DWR, advocating a “comprehensive needs assessment,” proposing criteria to evaluate safety and reliability, and requesting relevant documentation intended to help the Ad Hoc Committee fulfill its role of communicating accurate information to the public.


The Citizens Advisory Commission

In September 2018, Senate Bill 955 became law, creating a citizens’ advisory commission (Citizens’ Advisory Commission) within the California Natural Resources Agency (CNRA) charged with serving as a representative of the public for the provision of input and the receipt of information from the Oroville Dam operator; serving as a unified community voice for the provision of public feedback, advice and best practices to the Oroville Dam operator; and the publication of a triennial report on ongoing maintenance and improvements to the Oroville Dam. The 19-member Commission includes representatives of the City of Oroville and the Counties of Butte, Sutter and Yuba; California legislators; and representatives of the CNRA, DWR, Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, Department of Parks and Recreation, and California Highway Patrol. Commissioners’ terms are limited to three years.

The Citizens’ Advisory Commission is just beginning fact finding efforts.

The state hopes that the Citizens’ Advisory Commission will provide a meaningful voice for those most affected by the near-catastrophe, bring about meaningful changes to the structure and operation of the Oroville Dam, and restore confidence in the state’s ability to manage this component of the massive State Water Project. The Citizens’ Advisory Commission will be unable to make regulations for dam operations, only recommendations that can be accepted or rejected as seen fit.


The Federally Mandated Independent Forensic Review

At the end of September 2018, President Trump signed a bill requiring FERC to conduct an independent review of the Oroville Dam. The 2019 Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill request that the licensee of the Oroville Dam request the USSD to nominate independent consultants (Consultants) to perform a risk analysis on the Oroville Dam facility.

According to Congressman Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale):


  • . . .[t]he previous forensic report raised many concerns with regards to the safety and design of the Oroville Dam, but I believe a completely independent investigation is required in which there are no current or former employees of DWR involved. … That could be a conflict of interest, and ensuring that this process is thorough is absolutely necessary when it concerns the involvement of federal dollars and the safety of nearby residents.

When the independent risk analysis is completed, the House and Senate Committees must be briefed on FERC’s responses to the Consultants’ risk analysis.

The Appropriations Bill also requires FERC to apply the lessons learned to dam safety reviews on a nationwide basis.


Conclusion and Implications

The near catastrophe of February 2017 left an indelible impression on the memory of the residents of Oroville and the Northern California Gold Country, and officials at the local, state and federal levels of government. It caused many to question the ability of DWR to manage and operate the Oroville Dam and other State Water Project facilities. It caused the creation of multiple committees, commissions, panels and independent risk analyses of Oroville and other state and national dams.

Naturally, questions arise: Are we doing enough to evaluate the Oroville Dam incident?  Are we doing too much?  If more needs to be done, what should be done and by whom?  Who will assume full responsibility for fixing Oroville Dam? Will the monetary costs be so exorbitant as to discourage or preclude what needs to be done to fix every problem potentially uncovered at Oroville Dam?  What about every other dam in the nation that is determined to be unsafe?  Will all of these committees, commissions and analyses provide meaningful answers, the restoration of public confidence, make California’s and nation’s dams safer?

(Michael Duane Davis)