With old warnings unheeded, Oroville Dam problems threaten valley


SACRAMENTO – A Sacramento Bee story published Monday succinctly described the disaster unfolding at the nation’s tallest dam, where flaws in the Oroville Dam’s concrete spillway are forcing water onto the earthen emergency spillway. Threats of a spillway collapse led to mandatory evacuations throughout Butte, Yuba and Sutter counties Sunday.

“Oroville Dam contains a flaw, some critics assert, one that could damage the structure during a major flood and threaten downstream communities,” according to the Bee. “That flaw is the dam’s emergency spillway, which empties onto a bare dirt hillside adjacent to the earthen-fill dam.” The torrent of water could erode the unprotected hillside, undermine the emergency spillway’s foundation and lead to a catastrophic failure.

The amazing thing is that the news report was first published Nov. 27, 2005. The Bee’s Monday publication was a reprint, given the relevance of the report nearly a dozen years later. It provides necessary context after another news organization revealed that three environmental groups at the time had urged state and federal officials to line the emergency spillway with concrete to avoid the kind of problems on display this week.

A dozen years ago, the dam was going through a 50-year relicensing process with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The Friends of the River, the Sierra Club and the South Yuba Citizens League argued in their filings that the 1960s-era dam “did not meet modern safety standards because in the event of extreme rain and flooding, fast-rising water would overwhelm the main concrete spillway” and threaten flooding in communities down river, according to the Mercury News, which broke the story this week.

State and federal officials brushed off the suggestion at the time, arguing that the likelihood of such an event was slim and that it would be too costly to complete those improvements. The dam received its relicensing and the matter faded away. State water officials have been consumed more by drought issues than flood possibilities in the ensuing dozen years. But given the accuracy of the environmental groups’ predictions, it’s worth taking a deeper look at what happened.

At a news conference near Lake Oroville Monday, “the state’s top water officials brushed aside questions” about that old report and didn’t address assurances from a top state water official in 2005 that “(o)ur facilities, including the spillway, are safe during any conceivable flood event,” according to the latest Bee report.

The news story revealed another troubling piece of the puzzle: Congress had authorized the construction of a smaller dam on the Yuba River near Marysville, which is down river from Oroville. The Oroville Dam’s operating plan was predicated, in part, on the construction of this other dam, which would take pressure off the larger facility. But it was never built. In the view of critics, this serves as a touchstone for much that is wrong with California’s water policy.

Former Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, a Republican from San Bernardino County, criticized Gov. Jerry Brown for spending so much time defying the new Trump administration “that it forgot to do the things government is supposed to do, like maintain infrastructure.” The seven years of drought that preceded this rainy season, he added, would have been an ideal time to fix decrepit levees and dams but the Brown administration was more focused on building a $68-billion high-speed rail line, dealing with immigration issues and boosting public-employee compensation.

That’s a harsh assessment, but there’s much evidence to support the theory of ongoing state neglect. There are available water-bond funds, yet the state government has been lackadaisical at best about spending them. Many of its priorities are about environmental restoration rather than dam protection and there’s been little appetite in the Capitol to build new storage facilities.

Indeed, the governor has been more focused on removing dams on the Klamath River near the Oregon border than on shoring up the linchpin of the State Water Project – the system of levees and dams that directs water from the Sacramento Valley southward.

The Brown administration, which had vowed to fight against Donald Trump on his climate, immigration and other policies, nevertheless asked the president Friday to declare parts of California a disaster area, thus opening up a floodgate of federal aid. But there are other federal policies that the Trump administration could consider that would help protect residents living within the shadow of Oroville and other California dams.

For instance, current mortgage rules regarding flood insurance discourage people who live in the shadow of large dams from purchasing flood insurance policies. Federal lending rules require such insurance for owners of property in flood plains, but flood-protection systems such as dams and levees usually remove the floodplain designation from those areas. Without pressure from mortgage companies, owners typically avoid the insurance, figuring there’s little chance of a dam failure.

“Properties that would be designated as located within a flood plain but for a flood protection system like dams and levees – residual risk areas – should be subject to the mandatory purchase requirement,” argues the SmarterSafer Coalition, which includes the R Street Institute, in a recent study analyzing the federal flood insurance program. Those areas would, of course, have rates that “clearly reflect the decreased risk the properties face as a result of the dam or levee.”

Such an insurance system wouldn’t ensure that state and federal authorities repair their dams and levees in a timely manner, but it would offer a level of economic protection for people who are now sitting in motel rooms, watching the news and wondering whether they’ll have anything left if the Oroville Dam spillway gives way. Furthermore, it would protect taxpayers, who typically pay for the aid after a natural disaster strikes.

For now, watching and waiting is all that most Northern California residents can do. Once the crisis passes, there will be intense pressure on the state government to make repairs to Oroville Dam and others across the state. But news reports make clear that state officials were warned about the very problems now unfolding. 

Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at [email protected]


Write a comment
  1. Standing Fast
    Standing Fast 14 February, 2017, 11:55

    Another excellent article, Steve.

    So, what is the Legislature doing about this?

    Reply this comment
  2. Carolyn C
    Carolyn C 14 February, 2017, 12:37

    Sadly, Dems and their environmental supporters have a reputation of only wanting the shut down infrastructure projects that provide for the needs of Californians. When they raise concerns they are now shrugged off by many. Brown and his people don’t want to build anything that will support an increased population in California. Shut down housing projects, no more new roads, or water supply. Pretty soon they are going to be patrolling our bedrooms to make sure we aren’t “making” new Californians that might need to drive to work some day or drink water.

    Reply this comment
    • Daryl Lamonica
      Daryl Lamonica 16 February, 2017, 17:00

      The new NSA enforced ‘Masturbation Tax’
      will help increase the Ca. population,Carloyn.
      Do you commit to doing your part?

      Reply this comment
      • ricky65
        ricky65 17 February, 2017, 21:34

        Daryl Lamonica?
        The man they called the ‘Mad Bomber’ when he played for the Oakland Raiders in the 60’/70s?
        Did you ever complete any of those long bombs to Freddie Bilitnikoff or Warren Wells?…or was that just self abuse?
        Actually, as a long time fan of the Raiders I remember those guys catching quite a few.
        Keep on strokin’ Daryl!

        Reply this comment
  3. Terry
    Terry 14 February, 2017, 14:14

    We need to spend all of our money on High Speed Rail and sanctuary cities. The number 1 priority should be the health and safety of all CA LEGAL citizens. NOT a train or sancturary cities.
    Demorats are destroying this state as a socialist, communist experiment. Please vote these fools out of office.

    Reply this comment
  4. Spurwing Plover
    Spurwing Plover 14 February, 2017, 16:14

    Im sure the eco-wackos will blame this on GLOBAL WARMING AND Bill Nye the phonie sceince guy will blame Trump along with DiCaprio and the nature freaks will say Gaia is sending us a warning with nutcases like James Lovelock out there instead of in the mental ward

    Reply this comment
  5. JPR11
    JPR11 14 February, 2017, 17:27

    CA is now a one party state run by Public Unions and Environmental interests. CA has NOT added any new water storage in 30 years even though the population double. What kind of stupidity is that? Do the Unions and Enviorn Grps oppose adding to the states water supply? Musty be! Expect a new tax increase to pay for Repairs.

    CAL-W – keep up the effort. It is appreciated!

    Reply this comment
  6. LB1
    LB1 14 February, 2017, 20:23

    There is one reason these tyrants are doing this and that is the United Nations agenda 21 , Agenda 2030. Just like the phony climate change lie, it is about total control of our lives. The phony drought, they are geoengineering the weather and have been for years. look it up people. Time to throw a monkey wrench in tyrant Brown’s plans.Calexit is part of it. PUT THEM IN JAIL

    Reply this comment
  7. Spurwing Plover
    Spurwing Plover 15 February, 2017, 07:29

    The state prefred to finance a pork rail road and illegal aliens and ignore rhe oroville dam with results that could be disaserous more reasos we need to totaly clean out moonbeam and his entire cabinet

    Reply this comment
  8. ricky65
    ricky65 15 February, 2017, 09:10

    Jerry Brown could care less about this problem. He hasn’t even visited the site even though Oroville is a short 1/2 hour helicopter ride away.
    The truth is these are not Jerky’s peeps.
    Why would he visit a place populated with (as he sees them) one toothed, redneck hick Trump voters?
    His peeps are the coastal elite, Hollywood, Berzerkley, university, eco-fascist fat cats in the bay area.
    Maybe he just hasn’t figured out yet how to blame his failure to take care of our infrastructure on climate change instead of his own gross neglect over four terms of his BS administration.

    Reply this comment
  9. Butch
    Butch 15 February, 2017, 11:02

    I was warned of this very problem existing by a 20 year old fellow Marine who lived here way back in 1970. Surely this danger has been known for years!

    Reply this comment
  10. Ulysses Uhaul
    Ulysses Uhaul 15 February, 2017, 11:26

    Will you buy your dream home ever in Oroville. Sob

    We closed our rental yard forever in the area!

    Reply this comment
  11. RAZ
    RAZ 15 February, 2017, 15:07

    One party system in CA is ruining the State. It is run by Environs. who make Gaia a religion at the expense of us all. CA is a pagan haven and with so many churches what good are they. They say nothing and hide in their worship services so they can feel good for another week.

    Reply this comment
  12. Sammy the Bull
    Sammy the Bull 16 February, 2017, 08:50

    12 years of drought provided the perfect conditions to repair the deficiencies at the Oroville Dam, you know, something called “GOOD GOVERNMENT”, derided as “Goo goos” by the ultra progtard left in Maoifornia….Roads, dams and bridges are so damn BOURGEOIS. State government is all about SOCIAL JUSTICE-scanning the horizon for the next victim-identity group. Is it trannies? Is it pedos? Stay tuned! Funny how Stalinofornia state and local government employees are always bitching about how the ‘don’t have the resources’ to do their jobs, BUT THEY STILL HAVE JOBS, and they get PAID every two weeks, thank you very much!

    Reply this comment
    • Standing Fast
      Standing Fast 17 February, 2017, 17:16

      I am the next victim-group. In 1985 I was declared a menace to the community by the City Council where I live because they declared my neighborhood blighted so they could use eminent domain to take my house for development. This action automatically suspended the Constitutional Rights of everyone in my neighborhood. I am a second-class citizen. So are all the people who live and work and pay taxes in Redevelopment Project Areas. If your city and State have Redevelopment Law, then chances are you are a second-class menace to the community too. You do not have to be convicted of a crime to qualify. Just own property that city officials think doesn’t generate as much tax revenue as they think it should.

      Reply this comment
      • Sammy the Bull
        Sammy the Bull 21 February, 2017, 06:59

        My clean middle class neighborhood in San Diego was declared ‘blighted’ in 2003. The evidence? A photo of some graffiti on a dumpster behind a Safeway…..After the city redevelopment agency declared my area ‘blighted’ the City Council decreed that a “NEXUS” existed between my now-blighted neighborhood and the ‘blighted’ area of downtown San Diego, approximately 8-10 miles away…. This ‘nexus’ followed the tracks of the San Diego Trolley for miles. Blight and nexus having been declared, the way was clear for many more millions of sales tax increment to be diverted to downtown redevelopers. Basically my neighborhood was LOOTED, MINED, EXPLOITED to stuff the bank accounts of billionaires. And who says californians are not elitists?

        Reply this comment
  13. Spurwing Plover
    Spurwing Plover 16 February, 2017, 13:46

    I told you the eco-wacko nutcases are blaming the oroville dam on Global Warming its like that nutcase JAMES LOVELOCK who has come out with this Gaia poppycock him and Bill Nye belong in the same nuthouse together

    Reply this comment
  14. Need Work
    Need Work 16 February, 2017, 17:10

    Didn’t Larry Silverstien just buy and re-insure the Oroville Dam?
    No need to ‘pull it’ if extreme weather triggers the claim.

    Reply this comment
  15. Queeg
    Queeg 17 February, 2017, 16:25


    New Single Payer bills in legislature …..health care for ALL who reside in California …..

    From the very same ole Plutocrats that gave you the Oroville Dam long term economic regional nightmare.

    Reply this comment
    • Standing Fast
      Standing Fast 17 February, 2017, 17:18

      Queeg, you crack me up.

      Reply this comment
      • ricky65
        ricky65 17 February, 2017, 21:58

        Sir: Please don’t feed the trolls. Capt Queeg has serious mental issues.
        He is an undocumented worker working for slave wages at Uncle Uly’s Unsafe U-haul Trailer yard in Hemet.
        Queeg still carries the ball bearings in his pocket from his Navy days when he was relieved from his command of the USS Caine by mutineers. Uly has cruelly preyed upon Queeg’s mental infirmities by insisting he keep the ball bearings handy in case the poorly greased wheel bearings on one of his unsafe rental trailers should fail-which happens quite frequently, BTW.
        When pressed why he works for such a cruel and corrupt master, Queeg has flashbacks to his Navy days: “Oh sure I tried to do the right thing, but they fought me at every turn… and then there was the matter of strawberry ice cream..”
        Very sad indeed.

        Reply this comment
        • Queeg
          Queeg 18 February, 2017, 08:45


          This is fake news from a rabid doomer playing with your minds. My ball bearings are certified by the Maldovian Center for the Advancement of Doomer Stress Tests dominciled in Skunk Hollow, West Virginia.

          I work on a generous bonus system…..for every doomer outfitted for the final ride to Redneck Utopia I get airline and daca miles to either a Black Sea, Bolivia or tropical Cuba seminar on “How to Socialize Free Market Globalists and Tech Slavers”.

          Uli is a peachy guy constantly investing in Craiglist trailer buys to meet the surge out of Kali…..he has your back…….

          Reply this comment
  16. Spurwing Plover
    Spurwing Plover 21 February, 2017, 07:01

    Over 50 years ago Southern Oregon and Northern California were hit with a big flood cuased by a cold front that brought lots of snow and a pineapple express that turned it into rain and that’s long before any of this Global Warming/Climate Change poppycock or crack pots like Bill Nye,Al Gore and David Suzuki were even heard of

    Reply this comment

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Tags assigned to this article:
Jerry BrownOrovilleOroville DamSteven Greehut

Steven Greenhut

Steven Greenhut

Steven Greenhut is CalWatchdog’s contributing editor. Greenhut was deputy editor and columnist for The Orange County Register for 11 years. He is author of the new book, “Plunder! How Public Employee Unions are Raiding Treasuries, Controlling Our Lives and Bankrupting the Nation.”

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