The City of Oroville will file the first of what could be hundreds of lawsuits against the State of California for allegedly lying about known dangerous conditions at Oroville Dam.
With America’s tallest dam on the verge of collapse last Feb. 7, the Butte County Sheriff issued an emergency evacuation order affecting approximately 225,000 downstream residents. That was after they had been reassured for by state authorities that there was no risk of Oroville Dam’s failure after its main spillway collapse.
As a result of the spillway failures, mass evacuations, and near-catastrophic collapse of America’s tallest dam, the United States Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FECR) issued a mandatory order on February 21 demanding that the California Department of Water and Power (DWR) commission an independent forensic audit of the circumstances leading up to crisis and any continuing infrastructure safety and operating concerns.
Since the February incident, California’s Department of General Services, which manages government claims for state liability, has denied over 500 claims, including those of the City of Oroville. The total value of claims denied by the state for farmers and local government is about $1.2 billion.
But that could drastically change with the Jan. 15 release of the “Independent Forensic Team Report Oroville Spillway Incident” ordered by FERC. According to the summary: “The Oroville Dam spillway incident was caused by a long-term systemic failure of the California Department of Water Resources (DWR), regulatory, and general industry practices to recognize and address the inherent spillway design and construction weaknesses, poor bedrock quality and deteriorated service spillway chute conditions.”
The 535-page expert’s forensic report uses the word “known” on 66 pages to describe DWR staffers’ knowledge of Oroville Dam and spillway deficiencies.
The experts acknowledged: “The incident cannot reasonably be “blamed” mainly on any one individual, group, or organization.” But the report states 126 times that erosion issues that caused massive downstream infrastructure and property damage should have been known by the State of California, as the dam’s owner and operator.
The crisis at Oroville Dam is an example of the risks taken by both Democrat and Republican governors in slashing infrastructure spending by 83 percent from a national high of 20 percent of the state budget 40 years ago, to the nation’s second worst at 3.4 percent last year, according to a study by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) warned in 2013 that California has a $65 billion infrastructure investment deficit relating to its dams, waterways, airports, roads, bridges, seaports and tunnels. ASCE’s “Infrastructure Report Card” rated levees / flood control as California’s most neglected infrastructure sector, earning a national-low “D” grade.