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At least 188,000 urged to evacuate as concerns over California dam increase

February 13, 2017

By Paul Homewood




I reported on the problems with the emergency spillway at Oroville last week. Things have now taken a turn for the worse.

From Fox:


At least 188,000 people were asked to evacuate their homes in Northern California after authorities warned an emergency spillway in the country’s tallest dam was in danger of failing Sunday and unleashing uncontrolled flood waters on towns below.

Lake Oroville, about 150 miles northeast of San Francisco, is one of the state’s largest man-made lakes, and the 770-foot-tall Oroville Dam is the tallest in the U.S.

Sunday’s evacuation order came because of concerns the dam’s emergency spillway could fail. Over five hours later, hundreds of cars carrying panicked and angry people were sitting in gridlocked traffic.

"The police came and told us to evacuate," said Kaysi Levias who was with her husband, Greg, at a gas station as they attempted to flee.

Officials warned residents that the spillway could fail within an hour.

"I’m just shocked," Greg Levias said. "Pretty mad."

"Not giving us more warning," said Kaysi, finishing his sentence.

"We’ve never been through this before," said Kaysi Levias. "We have two boys and our dog. All the stuff we could fit in the trunk — clothes and blankets."

“This is very serious” California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Scott McClean told the SF Gate as he was stuck in massive amounts of traffic. “I’m just trying to get through traffic.”

What they couldn’t fit they piled as high as they could in their downstairs Yuba City apartment and joined the line of traffic attempting to leave the city where they had moved just three weeks ago.

The cities of Oroville, Gridley, Live Oak, Marysville, Wheat land, Yuba City, Plumas Lake and Olivehurst were all under evacuation orders. The order was sent out at around 4 p.m. after engineers discovered a hole that was eroding back toward the top of the spillway.

The erosion at the head of the emergency spillway threatens to undermine the concrete weir and allow large, uncontrolled releases of water from Lake Oroville, the California Department of Water Resources said. Those potential flows could overwhelm the Feather River and other downstream waterways, channels and levees.

Officials say Oroville Lake levels had decreased by Sunday night as they let water flow from its heavily damaged main spillway but noted that water was still spilling over the dam.

Butte County Sheriff Koney Honea said engineers with the Department of Water Resources informed him shortly after 6 p.m. that the erosion on the emergency spillway at the Oroville Dam was not advancing as fast as they thought.

"Unfortunately they couldn’t advise me or tell me specifically how much time that would take so we had to make the very difficult and critical decision to initiate the evacuation of the Orville area and all locations south of that," he said. "We needed to get people moving quickly to save lives if the worst case scenario came into fruition."

Honea said there is a plan to plug the hole by using helicopters to drop rocks into the crevasse.

The California Department of Water Resources said it was releasing as much as 100,000 cubic feet per second from the main, heavily damaged spillway to try to drain the lake.

Department of Water Resources spokesman Kevin Dossey told the Sacramento Bee the emergency spillway was rated to handle 250,000 cubic feet per second, but it began to show weakness Sunday at a small fraction of that. Flows through the spillway peaked at 12,600 cubic feet per second at 1 a.m. Sunday and were down to 8,000 cubic feet per second by midday.

Water began flowing over the emergency spillway at the dam on Saturday after heavy rainfall damaged the main spillway.

Unexpected erosion chewed through the main spillway earlier this week, sending chunks of concrete flying and creating a 200-foot-long, 30-foot-deep hole that continues growing. Engineers don’t know what caused the cave-in, but Chris Orrock, a spokesman for the state Department of Water Resources, said it appears the dam’s main spillway has stopped crumbling even though it’s being used for water releases.

Northern California is set for another round of rain on Wednesday. The storms are expected to bring about 4 inches of rain to parts of the Central Valley, according to the SF Gate.

“We need to do everything we can to maximize our ability to move water our of this reservoir — not just for the coming storm but for the coming storms,” said Bill Croyle, acting director of department of water resources. “Our planning is both short term and long term.”


Fortunately the situation appears to be easing a little, but with more rain forecast this week it could worsen again.

As I noted before, better meteorological forecasts more than a few days in advance would help reservoir management and potentially avoid these sort of problems.

As well as the floods in Queensland a few years ago, we also had a similar situation in Paris last year, when reservoirs were kept full before the heavy rain arrived.

Instead of wasting billions on Mickey Mouse climate science, perhaps some could be put to proper use.

  1. Nick Dekker permalink
    February 13, 2017 11:01 am

    This is an engineering and water management problem. Nothing to do with climate change.

    • February 13, 2017 11:50 am

      Yes, get rid of the greens from any decision-making process and leave all infrastructure decisions to licensed engineers.

    • John F. Hultquist permalink
      February 13, 2017 6:37 pm

      The issue was hotly debated in 2005.
      Those agencies that would have had to pay for the upgrades then being sought did not want to spend the money. Such upgrades are the very thing that not doing them causes the current problem.

      Roads were clogged and gas stations out of fuel last night.
      Hint: Keep a well stocked “Go Now” kit by your door and the gas tank full. Then be the first to leave.

    • February 15, 2017 8:54 am

      NOAA says: ‘A lot of water has been filtering into Lake Oroville in California in recent weeks, but the climate has served up much higher inflows in the past.’ [e.g. Jan. 1997]

      They then start waffling about greenhouse gases 😦

  2. Ian Magness permalink
    February 13, 2017 11:16 am

    I’m not so sure it’s quite as simple as that Nick.
    Californian authorities and their superstar Guv’nor Moonbeam have been of the opinion that CA was in a permanent state of drought, due to global warming, sorry, er climate change. So the reservoirs would never be full again.
    The key question, therefore, is to what extent did this thinking prevent the maintenance/rebuilding expenditures that, clearly, should have occurred on this dam?
    If the answer is “not at all”, then I agree with your sentiments wholeheartedly. If they really did reduce the budgets due to the green narrative, then many heads should roll.

    • John Ellyssen permalink
      February 13, 2017 4:24 pm

      Correct. Moonbeam has been tearing down dams throughout the drought instead of repairing them and building more water storage. Moonbeam also spent $1 billion supposedly on drought but no one seems to know where. Obviously not on repairing a problem known for a couple of months. As I commented on Paul’s previous article, The State and DWR agencies were still telling people there was no risk to the dam or people. The state never admits to wrong and never plans ahead.

  3. Martin Brumby permalink
    February 13, 2017 11:19 am

    And you can give categorical assurance that the dam hasn’t been managed for maximum water retention rather than for flood prevention; following Governor Moonbeam Brown’s incessant banging of the “endless drout in California – due to Climate Change” drum?

  4. Malcolm Bell permalink
    February 13, 2017 11:20 am

    Obviously caused by Anthropic Global Warming. What else?
    It cannot possibly be bad water management, cheap materials or second rate Engineering now could it?

    • Joe Public permalink
      February 13, 2017 11:51 am

      Perhaps more plausible, is slashed maintenance budgets.

      After all, if ‘permanent drought’ is promised, spending $millions on remedial work to spillways tacitly acknowledges the scaremongering by politicians can’t be correct.

      • John Ellyssen permalink
        February 13, 2017 4:25 pm

        True, but still does not explain the damaged primary spillway.

  5. rms permalink
    February 13, 2017 11:48 am

    For the moment, let’s assume it was designed and built correctly to then-applicable standards and practices (although maybe not). What happened in the meantime over the 50 years since construction ended? Properly monitored and maintained? What maintenance/changes were requested but deferred or denied? Is it true there the emergency, including a map of flooding that would happen if dam breached, is inadequate?

    Let’s us hope the dam holds and, further, there is no loss of life regardless of what happens to the dam.

    Big dams are proving to be dangerous, especially if not managed in response to Mother Nature’s whims.

    • Nordisch-geo-climber permalink
      February 13, 2017 12:11 pm

      During the drought, good management and stewardship would dictate that one day, it will be full again – therefore, plan maintenance during the drought, when low water levels allow easy intervention, a stitch in time saves nine. Be prepared, think ahead for the worst option. Murphy’s Law applies. It can not be repaired now while dangerously full.
      If it survives to the next drought – that is the time to act.

      • Sheri permalink
        February 13, 2017 6:41 pm

        It does not appear to be the dam, but the spillway, that gave out. There was an “emergency” spillway (it is described as being dirt and draining into a valley?) but since that was added in 1968, it had never been tested. It was “theorectically” useful. Reality did not cooperate and the water started washing out things very quickly. I read helicopters were dropping rocks into the hole in the spillway in an effort to keep the hole from growing.

        Part of the problem here may be the extremely strict environmental rules in California. Where I live in Wyoming, water has gone over the spillway repeatedly at one on the dams, creating a stunning waterfall into the river below. This is by design. People would go photograph the event.

        The drought doesn’t help, but even then, engineers usually realize that filling a reservoir the first month of the year is a very bad gamble.

  6. February 13, 2017 12:08 pm

    I would say that someone(s) were asleep at the switch. Or there has been corruption. Or, most likely, both. As with the failure of several of New Orleans’ levees after Hurricane Katrina, corruption was the cause. Each levee was overseen by an appointed official and it was just a political handout with no real attention paid to the state of a levee.

    So California believes the lies of those they hold up as wizards for political reasons and do not follow due diligence. Then comes disaster. Whether dams in California or levees in New Orleans or a hoax about climate change… is just plain evil to play with peoples’ lives for one’s personal gain.

    • Harry Passfield permalink
      February 13, 2017 2:42 pm

      Joan, as I said on another thread, it looks like an historic crack appeared about a third of the way down the spillway two years ago. I’m not sure what was ever done about that but my bet is that rain/spilled water got through the crack and washed away the subsoil further down under the spillway. This turned the spillway into a bridge over a large hole – but now with concrete under tension and compression. Something had to give. I bet the hole under the spillway had been there for many months.

  7. mikewaite permalink
    February 13, 2017 12:21 pm

    It seems very similar to the problems that overcame (literally) the Somerset Levels when Green dogma in DEFRA prevented the pumping and dredging of the levels that might have mitigated some of the flooding.
    I daresay that Gov Brown will direct the anger of the householders towards the industries that will be accused of being responsible for the extreme events that caused the scare rather than to any investigation of maladministration.
    In California, as in Somerset , householders suffer twice , once in the damage to life and property and again when taxes and insurance costs are increased to repair the damage..
    Meanwhile those who, for Green reasons ,oppose conventional and effective engineering go on to greater and more lucrative rewards.

    • Mike Jackson permalink
      February 13, 2017 4:20 pm

      Worth remembering that the Somerset Levels problem was partially caused by some selfish criminality by a local farmer.

      But without trying to excuse what he allegedly did one has to ask if he would have felt it necessary if the Levels had been properly maintained.

      In this instance there is probably enough blame to go round regardless of the reasons but I detect a bit of human nature at work. Since climate change is going to cause more rain/less rain/more floods/fewer floods/more drought/less drought/endless drought the temptation is always to go with the version that suits the narrative …. er, budget!

      And if the Big Cheese in Sacramento says there ain’t gonna be no more rain in this here state of California then why waste money repairing a spillway that is never going to be needed?

      Only when it is do you realise that Governor Brown won’t actually have used those precise words. You must have misremembered …

  8. February 13, 2017 1:08 pm

    They plan to drop rocks from helicopters – sounds a bit desperate.

    • Sheri permalink
      February 13, 2017 10:56 pm

      I must correct my comment—they are planning on dropping the boulders/bags of rocks (depends on new story) into the emergency spillway to slow the erosion. Yeah, they’re getting desperate.

  9. Broadlands permalink
    February 13, 2017 1:10 pm

    Where does the ENSO fit in? I believe that it is still in the La-Nina phase.

  10. Athelstan permalink
    February 13, 2017 1:45 pm

    I don’t know at all how the dam was constructed but thinking on a local holding reservoir built pretty near to where I was born, the ballast make up of the ramp looks to me to be of earth, observing some TV footage, leakage from the spillway has become a torrent, the force of which is quite clearly undercutting the earthen ramp. it all looks as though, to be severly undermining hte whole structure. This really is no joke, I do hope that the dam holds firm but I cannot say I am certain…………………………the authorities are right to evacuate im very ho.

    It is reminiscent of this, though far, far smaller in scale it did threaten a major road – Ulley and it was touch and go, the emrgency services and engineers did a fine job under the circumstances but for a couple of days it was touch and go and hope and prayers too.

  11. roger permalink
    February 13, 2017 2:18 pm

    Did not Donald Trump say, on the hustings of the Presidential selections and elections, that the infrastruture throughout America had been wantonly neglected and was in need of urgent and massive investment in repair and renewal?
    We must hope that the workforce exists for this great undertaking, and that skills other than millinery for vagina hats and art degrees for poster making exist in abundance in the more rational parts of the populace.
    Cometh the hour, cometh the man.

  12. tom0mason permalink
    February 13, 2017 2:25 pm

    Californian drought should be normal. If nature had it’s way most of the State would still be a desert.

    It is only through human intervention with diverting watercourses, piping water from the North, and making large reservoirs, or man-made lakes, that’s thirty-six reservoirs in total trying to contain over 200,000 acre feet (0.25 km3) of water(at maximum capacity.)

    I’m sure Californians are glad of this very short period of unusually high precipitation due to natural weather variation, and probably hoped for more. Or they would do if only the inspections and maintenance was carried out correctly and in a timely manner on the dams and spillways.
    Here’s an update on some local feeling —

  13. tom0mason permalink
    February 13, 2017 2:41 pm


    I have this interesting comment —

    Maybe this flood was unprecedented:

    Well, actually it wasn’t. Native Americans at the time already knew that the San Fernando Valley could become a sea. Which it did in 1862, after two decades of crippling drought. Further north, Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys (the Sacramento is below Oroville) were entirely flooded.

    All before we had climate change!

  14. Curious George permalink
    February 13, 2017 5:04 pm

    Happy days are here again! Governor Jerry Brown is now personally directing the work. His thorough knowledge of all accounting tricks will conquer all problems, just as it did with California budget woes.

  15. February 13, 2017 5:07 pm

    Can I interest you in looking into sea ice satellite measurements. (note upper right F17-19)

    What’s left measuring the ice?
    How reliable is it?
    Is that where some of the spurious graphics are coming from?

  16. Athelstan permalink
    February 13, 2017 6:01 pm

    Arctic sea it……………… sure looks OK here:

  17. John F. Hultquist permalink
    February 13, 2017 6:48 pm

    I made a reply to the first comment. Read it, if you have not.

    Further, the dam itself is fine. The work now is to prevent an “uncontrolled” release.
    That’s the purpose of dropping rocks into the spaces on the down-side of the big long wall — the emergency or auxiliary spillway. The soil and rocks there (whatever) did not hold up to the flow so helicopters and big rocks will be the repair method for now.

  18. Jack Broughton permalink
    February 13, 2017 8:22 pm

    An interesting thought from this and the South Australian wind turbine blackout is that “climate fear” has clearly already cost more lives than the un-measurable “climate change” that is being avoided by this fear. The believers would have been very quick to associate death rates with these problems if they could find anything to hang them on!

  19. Timo Soren permalink
    February 14, 2017 12:18 am

    I am in agreement with Ian, I am leaning to the side where management may have skipping specific maintenance steps during the ‘never-ending-drought-story’.

    I can imagine minimally, an inspection of the spillway after each release season or wet season, regardless of releases, just to know it’s appropriate status and/or defects. I have seen sidewalk men us simple rubber hammers to hear the space under walks to know where to inject cement to support water damage walk areas, not just to lift.

    As we have seen, they stopped using the spillway because of damage. I suspect to protect any ground as part of the actual dam. But that allowed it to raise higher. Hence, the question of spillway inspection is paramount.

    Or perhaps 20 years ago, someone threw out the required annual inspection of the spillway and the new guys never thought about it!

  20. Timo Soren permalink
    February 14, 2017 1:01 am

    I did a little digging and the comments about flood control were heavily integrated in Oroville’s relicensing procedure in 2005. This was noted in a newspaper article somewhere else. I found the following pdf in the California Re-licensing that were filed. Please look at bin_1_att 2.pdf at this link:
    (the link is renamed attachment 2 on the site)

    On page 35 of the document is a scan of a document
    to: Rick Rameriz, Program Manager, Oroville Dam relicensing.
    from: S. L. Somach, special legal counsel, county of Sutter.
    Dated: June 4th, 2004

    All about being frustrated with the re-licensing process because DWR refuses to substantively address the five (5) major concerns on “flood control issues” the county has raised.

    The money quote is:

    “Nevertheless, it has become increasing apparent that the DWR is giving only lip service to the requirement that flood control be given ‘equal consideration.'”

    They clearly indicated that in 2002 and again in 2003 the Oroville people ignored the legally mandated instructions to account and plan for flood control.

    The questions of OPERATIONS MANUAL and SPILLWAY design, we paramount in their letter.

    Oroville people claimed that these issues could be addressed ‘during the license period’ while the county clearly indicated that the DWR had a legal duty to address them within the re-licensing procedure.

    I hope the county sues the DWR for their failure and they have to pony up the costs of the evacuation as penalty.

    The third page contains

    “The current approach to flood control set forth…is wholly inadequate” to satisfy legal obligations of the DWR in this matter.

    Nothing like having laws in place, experts hired/employed to make them work and the government politically inclined to mess it up!

  21. February 14, 2017 12:53 pm

    Who will believe the FERC now?

    ‘On Sunday, with flows of only 6,000 to 12,000 cubic feet per second — water only a foot or two deep and less than 5 percent of the rate that FERC said was safe — erosion at the emergency spillway became so severe that officials from the State Department of Water Resources ordered the evacuation of more than 185,000 people.’

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