Dan Bacher: Delta Legislators and Advocates Respond to ‘Alarming’ Oroville Dam Fiasco

CDFW staff at the Feather River Fish Hatchery below Oroville Dam during the evacuation of salmon at the facility on February 10. CDFW photo.

Feb. 13, 2017 – A day after state officials ordered the evacuation of over 188,000 people from Butte, Yuba and Sutter Counties,  members of the newly-formed Delta Caucus of the California Legislature on February 13 issued a statement regarding the “hazardous situation” at Oroville Dam after The Mercury News reported that previous concerns about the safety of the Dam’s current infrastructure were ignored.

They said they have a “duty to ensure California’s existing infrastructure is maintained and upgraded, and not sacrificed in favor of conveyance projects,” referring to Governor Jerry Brown’s plan to build two massive water tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas.

The following bipartisan group of legislators said they wished to be part of this  statement: Senator Bill Dodd (Co-Chair), D-Napa; Senator Richard Pan, D-Sacramento; Assemblymember Jim Frazier (Co-Chair), D-Oakley; Assemblymember Susan Talamantes Eggman, D-Stockton; Assemblymember Catharine Baker, R-Dublin; Assemblymember Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove; Assemblymember Tim Grayson, D-Concord:

“We are concerned that a clear alarm raised 12 years ago about the state of the Oroville Dam’s emergency spillway was discounted. There has been more than enough time since then for upgrades and maintenance to the structure. Instead, nearly 185,000 people have been displaced, and there are still people in harm’s way.

A catastrophic failure at Oroville would result in uncontrolled releases that do considerably more harm to the surrounding communities, and threaten those further downstream, including levee-protected communities in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. For now, we have a collective responsibility to ensure that people are safe and that necessary steps are taken to prevent further compromise of the entire Oroville facility.  

When the immediate threats have subsided, we need to clearly assess this disaster and its causes.  We have a duty to ensure California’s existing infrastructure is maintained and upgraded, and not sacrificed in favor of conveyance projects.” 

The legislators released their statement just prior to Governor Jerry Brown’s meeting with emergency response officials at the State Operations Center in Mather regarding the ongoing response to the situation at the Oroville Dam’s emergency spillway and subsequent local evacuations.

On February 12, Brown declared a state of emergency to help mobilize disaster response resources and support the local evacuations. “The Governor’s Office of Emergency Services has activated the State Operations Center in Mather, California to its highest level and is coordinating with personnel at the Incident Command Post in Oroville, California and with other local, state and federal emergency response officials to address all emergency management, evacuation and mutual aid needs,” according to a statement from the Governor’s Office.

Two organizations opposed to Governor Brown’s Delta Tunnels also responded  to the  breach in the Oroville auxiliary spillway and the evacuation of  over 188,000 people from Butte, Yuba and Sutter Counties.

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, Executive Director of Restore the Delta (RTD), commented on the current situation, Oroville Dam, how the crisis was preventable, what should be done next, and the California WaterFix.

On the current situation, Barrigan-Parrilla  said, “We are hopeful that the Department of Water Resources (DWR) can continue to keep the situation at Oroville under control.”

“We are grateful for all the courageous and hardworking people working day and night to keep the region safe – from DWR employees to public safety officials. The evacuations seem to have been successfully executed,” explained Barrigan-Parrilla.

On Oroville Dam:  “This dam is the primary reservoir for the State Water Project. One-third of Southern California’s water is State Water Project water. Oroville Dam also is the source for a portion of Bay Area water deliveries. Making Oroville safe is essential and must take priority over any other water project in the state,” she said.

Barrigan-Parrilla also emphasized that the crisis was preventable. “The Mercury News is reporting that Federal and State officials ignored warnings 12 years ago. Three environmental groups — the Friends of the River, the Sierra Club and the South Yuba Citizens League — filed a motion with the federal government on Oct. 17, 2005, as part of Oroville Dam’s relicensing process, urging federal officials to require that the dam’s emergency spillway be armored with concrete, rather than remain as an earthen hillside. They warned that the spillway could erode during heavy winter rains and cause a catastrophe.”

“FERC rejected that request, however, after the state Department of Water Resources, and the State Water Contractors argued that they would likely have had to pay the bill for the upgrades. They said the upgrades were unnecessary. The State Water Contractors & Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s outsized influenced on DWR to NOT upgrade the emergency spillway is a story that must be thoroughly investigated once the emergency has passed,” said Barrigan-Parrilla.

“Because of this penny pinching, residents of these water districts will lose a significant portion of their water supply for this year. And almost 200,000 lives in the region downstream from the Oroville Dam have been disrupted, physically and economically (with no clear date set for when they can return home). Another series of storms are expected from Thursday through Tuesday of next week,” she stated.

“Millions of Chinook salmon have had to be relocated from the hatchery, with outcomes of disruption to their life cycle to be seen. Swollen rivers filled with debris can have negative impacts on public safety downstream and on wildlife, as levees will experience extreme pressure from emergency flows,” she added.

What Should Be Done? “Safety comes first. Before spending a dime on any gold-plated, taxpayer-backed, water delivery service to agricultural interests, we need to upgrade our 678 high hazard dams in California. Making those facilities safe is now the priority over projects such as the Delta Tunnels that will largely serve industrial agricultural interests in the southern San Joaquin Valley.  We need to remind our state water resources agency that they really work for the people of California, not the water districts,” she said.

What about the Delta Tunnels? “The Delta Tunnels are only 10% designed, with no seismic analysis, and no full soil samples, yet DWR is leading the charge for state and federal permits for the project. Are they going to repeat history with the Delta Tunnels and ignore the warnings that the design is flawed, and the impacts to health and human safety, and the environment are serious?” concluded Barrigan-Parrilla.

Food & Water Watch’s California Director Adam Scow said the current crisis should be a “wake up call” to state officials.

“The crisis at the Oroville Dam should be a wake up call to State leaders that we should fix existing water infrastructure before spending billions on questionable projects like the proposed Delta tunnels and Sites Reservoir,” he stated. “Repairing Oroville Dam will likely cost between $100 and $200 million and could force higher water rates throughout California.”

“California has more than one thousand dams, many of which are older than the Oroville Dam. Rising temperatures mean more rain and less snow, increasing the likelihood of future spillovers and similar crises. It is time for Governor Brown to stop wasting taxpayer dollars on new projects that will benefit California’s largest corporate agribusiness and for him to fix California’s crumbling water systems,” said Scow.

Governor Jerry Brown and administration officials, now under scrutiny by local, state, national and international media for their handling of the Oroville Dam crisis, have continually portrayed their environmental policies as “green.” However, twelve public interest groups, led by Consumer Watchdog and Food & Water Watch, challenged Governor Brown’s “green” credentials at a press conference in Santa Monica on February 4.

The groups unveiled a comprehensive report card on Jerry Brown Administration’s environmental record showing he falls short in six out of seven key areas, including fossil fuel generated electricity, oil drilling, and coastal protection.

The report calls for a moratorium on the building of natural gas powered electricity plants, given what they described as “the glut of electric capacity” and calls for an outside audit of state’s energy needs. The groups showed how California can improve its environmental protections to meet standards set in other states.

The report, noting that Brown’s infrastructure projects, led by the California WaterFix, “deplete water resources and threaten wildlife,” also urges the Governor to abandon the Twin Tunnels project.

The public interest groups concurring in the report’s analysis, assessments, and recommendations include:  Food & Water Watch, Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles, Restore The Delta, Rootskeeper, Powers Engineering, Basin and Range Watch, Aguirre & Severson LLP, Public Watchdogs, Southern California Watershed Alliance, The Desal Response Group, Committee to Bridge the Gap, and Consumer Watchdog.

“Far from the environmentalist that Brown claims to be, Brown has expanded the burning of heat-trapping natural gas and nurtured oil drilling and hydraulic fracturing while stifling efforts to protect the public from harm,” the report says. “The Public Utilities Commission has approved a slew of unnecessary new fossil-fuel power plants when the state’s three major investor-owned utilities have overbuilt their generating capacity by nearly triple the minimum extra capacity that the state requires. Under Brown, the number of active onshore oil and gas wells jumped by 23 percent since the year before he was elected Governor in a bid to produce more oil.”

 

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