California State Assembly Hearing with DWR alerts residents to the hazard of problems with the Oroville Dam
Written by Valerie L. Price
Steemed May 14, 2017
On May 11, 2017, the California State Assembly held a joint oversight hearing with the Assembly Water Parks, and Wildlife, Accountability and Administrative Review and Subcommittee No. 3 on Resources and Transportation listening to the testimony of 3 panels in an informational and oversight hearing for an update on the damaged Oroville Dam. The hearing was conducted at the State Capitol building on Thursday, May 11, 2017 at 1:00 pm.
Eduardo Garcia, Committee Chair, California State Assembly member, District 56, gave opening remarks. and after welcoming the agency officials, he yielded to other members. Assemblymember Richard Bloom outlined the Committee's expectations for the meeting to provide “a clear path forward” to manage water resources in California without a risk to public safety. He states that some of the information has not been getting to the Committee members, under the “guise” that it creates “security problems.” Bloom said there “has to be a balance,” so the Committee can “perform it's proper oversight role.” Assemblymember Susan Talamantes Eggman stated that she wanted to approach the hearing as a “regular resident”, telling the officials that she had family living in the area who were “affected by this.” James Gallagher, Committee Vice-Chair, District 3, revealed that he, along with two hundred thousand of his constituents, were forced to leave their homes on February 12, 2017. He said, “We were told that within an hour, a thirty foot wall of water could be heading in our direction. Needless to say, this was a very harrowing experience for us.” Gallagher went on to call the Oroville Dam complex “possibly the most important piece of critical infrastructure in the state,” pointing out that “it provides drinking water to 26 million people.”
Gallagher stated that after going over inspection reports, he had learned that the Oroville Dam has been “rife with problems”, and has been “managed very poorly.” He pointed to the failure of the Main Spillway, which collapsed in February, precipitating the series of events that prompted the Sheriff to issue orders for emergency evacuation of residents of several communities below the dam. Gallagher pointed out that the River Valve Outlet system had been “refurbished”, but he stated that it was because “in 2009 they tried to open those gates, and five employees were nearly killed,” because there was no “baffle” on the gates (Hearing, May 11, 2017).
According to Bill Croyle, at a press briefing given by DWR, on Thursday, April 6, 2017, the River Valve Outlet System was inoperable. He stated that the problem would be addressed, and DWR hoped it would be operational by the first week in May 2017. During the briefing, reporter Juan Browne, asked whether the River Valve Outlet System could be operated “under high head pressure,” when the reservoir level reached 865 feet, and whether it could be operated in conjunction with the Hyatt Power Plant. Bill Croyle stated that he did not know the answer to this question, revealing a lack of technical knowledge of performance capabilities in the system of redundancies at the Oroville dam (Blancolirio, April 7, 2017).
Whether or not the River Valve Outlet System is being used to get water out of the reservoir is unclear in the State Assembly hearing. Assemblymember Gallagher stated that the River Valve Outlet System is still not able to operate at maximum capacity of 5400 CFS, but can only operate to release 4200 CFS (Hearing, May 11, 2017). Gallagher listed several problems that have caused a lack of redundancies, limiting the ways DWR officials can get water out of the reservoir. In 2004, the Thermolito Power Plant burned and has not been repaired, so that water cannot be released through that power plant. Several turbines at the Hyatt power plant have been inoperable at times during the crisis. One turbine at the Hyatt Power Plant “has been down for over two years,” and is still inoperable. Gallagher also mentioned that a “circuit box” in the gallery was out of commission for “several months.” Dam employees had used an extension cord and a string of lights, instead of repairing the problem. He makes the point to illustrate that a “culture” exists at DWR which “patches over” things without “fully fixing the problem.”
Rachel Ehlers, Principle Fiscal and Policy Analyst, Legislative Analyst's Office, addressed the Committee to provide background information and details of optimal function, as well as other agencies involved, to guide the Committee in its questioning. She asks, “Are there still safety risks at Oroville?” She mentions “flaws in the original design” of the Oroville dam, and she urges the Committee to ask questions about other dams in the area that should be evaluated for safety risks. Ehlers told the Committee that the Hyatt Power Plant could release 17,000 CFS of water, if all of the turbines were in proper working order. She commented that inspections were limited to the dam itself, and did not typically include the spillways or other structures associated with water release.
John Laird, Secretary of California Natural Resources Agency, testified that he “hopes” they are in the middle of the “last spill of the year,” over the damaged Main Spillway. Laird stated that California had “the strongest dam inspection in the country”. He referenced the 1929 and 1963 dam disasters in California as having prompted the state to strengthen its dam inspections and oversight. He points to Climate Change as a threat to dam safety, and he implicates extreme precipitation due to Climate Change as a cause of the crisis before reversing himself to state that he does not believe that Climate Change caused the crisis.
Bill Croyle spoke briefly to state that public safety is the “top priority” for DWR. He stated that he did not believe that “hydrology caused the problem”, but he said that they “don't know and won't know” for a while. He points to high rainfall statewide and high inflows to the reservoir as having caused the crisis. He stated that current inflows are around 14,000 CFS.
When taken with Ehlers statement that the Hyatt Power Plant would release 17,000 CFS, if it were fully operational, it is easy to understand that the failure to maintain systems for water release from the reservoir is causing DWR to rely too heavily on the damaged Main Spillway. Reservoir levels have been maintained between 835 feet and 865 feet. Water release through the Main Spillway is stopped at 835 feet to “prevent scouring” of the earth behind the Main Spillway that would damage the spillway inlet (DWR, March 22, 2017). If the Hyatt Power Plant turbines were all working properly, releasing 17,000 CFS, with current inflows of 14,000 CFS, reservoir levels could be brought lower than the Main Spillway safety cut-off of 835 feet. Reservoir storage capacity could be increased to make room for the expected snow melt, which is projected to raise inflows to around 30,000 CFS. The neglected turbine reduces the amount of water that can be released through the Hyatt Power Plant such that outflows cannot be greater than inflows, making it impossible to lower the reservoir level below 835 feet. The inability to release enough water to exceed inflows without using the Main Spillway increases the risk of failure of the Main Spillway, and also the risk of over-topping the Emergency Spillway again, if inflows should increase beyond the capacity for releasing water from the dam.
John Laird answers the question of who will be responsible for paying the costs associated with repairs to the dam by stating that 96% of costs associated with the dam have historically been paid by water contractors, and 4% has been paid by the State. He says that “water contractors will have to step up here,” and there is only a question of whether federal funds will offset any of the costs.
Assemblymember Marc Levine said that experts had foreseen the catastrophe in earlier years. He asks what type of inspections were done, stating that reports indicate that “only visual inspections were done.” Dave Gutierez, Technical Advisor to the Department of Water Resources, responded to say that “visual inspections” were done at Oroville dam, and that historically any observed problems lead to “more of an intrusive exploration.”
DWR was asked whether there is a process to decide whether “visual inspections” are adequate for dam safety. Gutierez elucidates the decision making paradigm at DWR on dam safety by turning attention to the fact that more than “half the dams in California are over fifty years old. And it's not that they're aging that's the problem. It's the fact that they weren't designed to the standards we would design them today.” He says, “We look at these structures, and we look at them in terms of 'risk. […] You only have so much resources.” They look at which dams “are the highest risk structures in the state?” He says that the highest risk structures are the dams that are “one hundred and eighty years old, and may be near an active fault. After intrusive exploration and performing any necessary repairs on those older structures, Gutierez says, “we” have to “go further” to decide whether visual inspection is good enough, and he believes the forensic team will help DWR to “figure that out.” He says, “And now we all have to decide as a society, are we going to pay for--- for all that extra work that's necessary? And probably the answer is yes, but we have to get there...”
Marc Levine calls attention to warnings of impending disaster at the Oroville dam raised “years earlier” by “environmental crews”, and he asks if, looking back, the DWR would “say that they they were right?” Gutierez responds with, “This is an Emergency Spillway we're talking about, and it's actually good to know what an Emergency Spillway is.” The Bureau of Reclamation defines “what an emergency spillway is.”
Gutierez goes on to explain DWR rationale for failing to bring the Emergency Spillway up to modern standards, and he concludes by hinting that DWR weighs “cost” against the “risk” to people's lives and property.
“An Emergency Spillway, the definition, in reality, is a structure that's only going to be used in a very rare event. In this case that wasn't the case. In this case, it was a redundant system. But, […] the Emergency Spillway is [only] used in a vary rare event. In structures that are gonna be used in a very a rare event, that's actually 'okay'--- it's actually okay for these things to be damaged. So, damage is actually part of the design. […] Versus something that's not going to be used frequently. […] The Department had always known this, that Emergency Spillway was ever going to get engaged. There is going to be significant debris moved down through that canyon and into that river, but it was going to happen in the rare occasion. So that's not what happened. What happened here is because the redundant system of the Main Spillway was--- was in trouble. And it was never an intention to use the Emergency Spillway system, even in this situation, but it was used. And I think the unexpected part is the rock that eroded more quickly than was anticipated to. That's another thing that we should revisit. We should revisit whether these types of Emergency Spillways should be a little bit more robust than what they are. Should be designed, so, I think what's going to come out in the--- we're going to learn. […] These are questions we've really gotta, uh--- be a little bit patient and try to get answers to, cause they have to be the right answers, and whatever we decide there's going to be […] huge consequences, one way or another, in terms of safety, or in terms of cost. So, we have to struggle with that, and I think we have to discuss that further once we get the answers.”
Marc Levine points out that “this has a lot of attention, because of course, it's the tallest dam in the country, and the emergency evacuation order.” He wants to know what assessments are being made to assure residents of other communities that they will not face the same situation Oroville residents faced.
Gutierez reiterates DWR's decision making paradigm regarding dam safety, weighing “cost” of maintenance against the “risk” to residents' lives. He suggests that “society” should determine what the “acceptable level of risk” should be, but the Assemblymembers and panelists complain repeatedly that DWR keeps much information “secret” for “security”, making it impossible for the Committee, or “society”, to make an informed decision on exactly what level of risk actually exists.
“There will always be risk,” Gutierez replies. “We live in a society--- there's always going to be risk, and there's going to be a risk. What we have to do as a society is figure out where is that acceptable risk at, and uh--- that's a tough decision, and that kinda goes back to how you evaluate these. So--- so--- you only have so much resources, and we need to look at that. We need to look at that collectively. Are we spending enough resources on things like dam safety? Infrastructure, in general, um-- the way we do look at it right now though, is we are attacking the highest risk structures--- [dams that are older than fifty years] highest risk structures first, then we go down the line. I think what we need to do, together, collectively, is determine, is that enough? We need to go a little bit further. We need to spend a little more resources on it.”
John Laird remarks that “the Anderson dam spilled over” and says, “everything was spilling over.” Operators had been ordered to lower their levels until the facility could be hardened to withstand earthquakes. Laird says that when the storm passed, the levels came down, and the levels are now at an “acceptable level of risk.”
Levine asked when the forensic report on the Oroville dam would be completed, and Gutierez told him that the report is expected to be completed by fall.
Committee member, Jim Frazier, states that he is “looking at some of these defects and flaws,” documented in the University of Berkley report, and he says that he is a “General Contractor” and holds a “C61-DO6 Concrete Specialties License”. He says that some things that “are the basis of how we design” megalithic infrastructure were “overlooked” in the construction of the Main Spillway, and these components were “elementary” and “concrete 101”. He asks, “What's missing?” He goes on to suggest that “they were trying to cover their own tails.” He states that if the spillway was constructed in such a manner that erosion would occur with no reinforcement, it is “an absolute failure.” He calls for sensors to be put into spillways, so inspectors will know if water is undermining, or cracks are forming. He and other Committee members condemned the practice of “visual inspections” repeatedly. Frazier made references to “hammer drops” used to inspect the Main Spillway. He lists reported problems or deficits that he says can “create a cancer” in the spillway. He also stated that thicknesses of concrete of the Main Spillway of only “4 to 6 inches have been found.” Frazier said, “You say there's a level of risk? The public doesn't think so. They think we take care of all risk, and make sure that they're safe.” He also said, “This frightens me that it was built in this way.”
Bill Croyle assured the Assemblymembers that the latest technology would be implemented in repairs, and he expressed his confidence in the organization that will do the work.
Assemblymember James Gallagher expressed his concern that the “organization” operating the dam has problems in management and culture. He stated that the concrete of the Main Spillway “did not have water stops” between the joints, “where the concrete comes together.” He goes on to assert that The Board of Consultants report stated “that [the lack of water stops] was no doubt a factor in the failure of the spillway.” He asks if there was a “process” for “identifying deficiencies” and for refurbishing. Gutierez says, “The answer is yes, there is a process. Obviously we've got to look at that process, cause it didn't work. And this kinda goes back to the previous question. If you look at the process, you look at it in terms of 'risk'.”
Gallagher stops him to say that the Oroville dam is the “cornerstone of the State Water Project” and asks whether it has priority.
“Yeah, absolutely,” Gutierez answers. “What I'm saying is that process was looked at. Usually when you look at that process, you make a decision. And that's the problem. Should this structure be rebuilt because it doesn't meet that design standard?”
Gallagher asks if the water stops, or the thickness of the concrete (15 inches in the Oroville dam Main Spillway, as compared to 43 inches of concrete at Folsom dam), was ever identified as being a problem. Gutierez answers, “No.”
Holding up a sheaf of papers with many stick on dividers, Gallagher states that “tree roots” were “plugging up the drainage pipes,” and that each of the dividers marked a place in the reports where the problem of trees growing too close to the Main Spillway had been listed. When asked if there was a process for cutting the trees, and specifically trees that were growing nearest to the drains, in areas where the inspectors had reported blockage, Gutierez answered that he was unfamiliar with the reports. He stated that inspectors would require that trees be removed, especially if they were growing near the drains. Gutierez denied that any large trees were growing near the drains, and he asked that the Committee wait for the forensic report. Gallagher asks, “Did we ever go check the drains?” Gutierez answers, “Not that I know of,” and he repeated his denial that any trees were growing near the drains. Gallagher tells him there are documents and photos showing the trees, and that “trees take a long time to grow,” implying that neglect of standard inspection and maintenance have been ongoing for years.
Gallagher refers to “patchwork that was done in 2009” along the “herringbone” lines of the Main Spillway floor, and he asks if anyone noticed that “there were issues with the drains,” that they were cracked, or whether voids were observed. DWR refused to answer, saying they would not answer until the forensic report was released. Gallagher directs DWR to answer “to this Committee,” but Gutierez again refuses, insisting they wait for the forensic report.
Gallagher explains that at the “head-works of the spillway” there is a “diagonal crack in the left side of gate eight,” and he reveals that “there's also a crack in the center of the head-works of the spillway.” He states that the crack is serious. He asks, “Is there a plan to fix the head-works? You know, these cracks are probably going to require complete replacement of the head-works. What's the plan on that?” Bill Croyle states that DWR is focused on the emergency, but he says that a “small” team is considering “what the permanent repair would look like.”
Gallagher says, “The wet spot. The green spot… on the left groin.” He asks if “pizometers” have been put in to monitor the wet spot. He says that originally, 56 pizometers were installed, but now only 3 are active to be read to monitor “the seepage and the pressure on those areas.” He says, “I've heard it said that it's not a problem to the stability to the dam. Okay, well, prove that to me.” Bill Croyle answers, saying, “I can't speak to whether there has been any instrumentation” installed to monitor the wet spot.
Gallagher points out that in other years, Oroville has seen much higher inflows, specifically 1997. He says, “We are damn lucky that it wasn't a 1997 event.” John Laird responds to state that he had no confidence in the people who headed DWR previously. Gallagher states that DWR sought and obtained a new, 50 year license from FERC to continue operating the Oroville Dam. He asks if DWR will consider Climate Change in their plans for maintaining the dam. Gallagher points out that the FERC license has already been issued, and he is concerned, because DWR officials refused to consider Climate Change in their operation of the dam in 2005, calling it “speculative.” Gallagher expressed his concern over how DWR operates the dam, pointing out that they have refused to change their operations to meet new challenges. Laird assured him that Climate Change would be considered.
State Senator Nielsen spoke of a gap between the spillway and the ground, the lack of rebar, and inadequate anchors, as well as the fact that no maintenance was done to correct problems. He said that this “alarms” him, and he calls for a “much greater sense of urgency.” Gutierez answers by saying that DWR will wait for the forensic report before making decisions. Nielsen says, “We're taking it far too casually,” and he reiterates his concern over foliage in drainage systems.
Eduardo Garcia dismissed the panel to welcome Ron Stork, Senior Policy Advocate, Friends of the River, a member of the new panel. Stork addressed the Committee to say that the 20 year effort to get DWR to understand that Oroville needed a new spillway, and trying to get them to build a new spillway was “one of the most frustrating, Alice in Wonderland experiences of my life.” He stated that the Oroville Emergency Spillway “nearly killed 200,000 people,” because it failed, and “spillways shouldn't fail.” He states that DWR told the relevant agencies that “it was all safe up there. It was all solid rock. Stork said, “That dam hasn't been safe since it was built.” He was told by DWR, “Don't worry,” and when DWR was asked for confirmation, their response was that “it was all CEII. It was all secret.”
Robert Bea, Phd Professor Emeritus, Center for Catastrophic Risk Management, UC Berkley, an engineer with 63 years experience working around the world, addressed the Committee to say that the forensic report contains two simple conclusions. The first, defects were embedded, in the dam and in maintenance. He says that DWR stated that “there was no aging” of the dam. He maintains that there were “cracks and corrosion” and trees, among other conditions. He stated that 3 engineers who worked for DWR came to him in confidence to inform him of problems. He says that new information is needed on wet spots. He asserts that spillways fail at the head-works due to flaws in design that promulgate flaws in construction and flaws in operation. He said that what bothered him was wondering why maintenance and flawed operations were “allowed to persist for fifty years,” comparing it to a long slide down a “slippery slope” that is a “forty foot razor blade. At the bottom, you end up in two bloody pieces.”
Dr. Bea warns that “nature [is] unforgiving of ignorance.” He makes 3 recommendations. “Look out for the spillway gates,” because the inspection reports show cracks in the head-works, “that they've had to paint over the cracks, so you can watch the two sides moving relative to each other. And then you look at the anchor tines for the gates; two of them are broken. The wet spots, have been explained away as natural. In my world there's nothing like that that's natural unless proven natural. The pizometers are a clue.” He warns to pay attention to the wet spots, because they are “part of this problem of growing old.” Implicit in his remarks is a grave warning of the potential for catastrophic failure of the Main Spillway gate head-work structure, and consequently, the earthen part of the dam.
He says DWR “needs substantial help” from dam safety agencies and others. He says DWR has trouble “reaching out and bringing in the help.” He states that the backgrounds of members of the forensic team has no evidence of formal education in forensic analysis. He suggests that the forensic team members were appointed because they were “friends”. His overall assessment of the culture at DWR, and in agencies relied upon for inspections and regulation, is an atmosphere of “outsiders” and “insiders”. Insiders are “family”, implying protective relationships with others involved in dam safety, operations, and maintenance.
Bill Connelly spoke to represent residents of Butt county, complaining of the lack of reimbursement to the county for firefighting and other services provided to DWR, including roads worn by dam traffic, that are maintained by the county. He expressed a lack of trust, and a lack of confidence in DWR. Connelly believes that DWR should not be permitted to continue operating the dam, because they cost his county too much, and pose a risk the county cannot afford, since DWR has driven their local economy to ruin.
James Gallagher stated that there were 50 borings before construction of the dam, and only a single boring in the years since. He points out that DWR failed to do the “geotech” to know what was going on in problem areas. When asked whether the inspection agency was independent enough to assess the safety of the dam, Dr. Robert Bea responded in the negative. He spoke of inspectors using chains on the spillway to sound for voids, “an old fashioned method” used in the 1960s, implying that the approach to inspection of the Oroville Dam was inadequate. He explained that there were systemic problems resulting from the closeness of DWR and the agencies responsible for dam inspection, and when problems were identified, they were not addressed.
The “culture” of DWR and relevant agencies was referred to by Eduardo Garcia and other members of the Committee multiple times. The Assemblymembers and Dr. Robert Bea made the point that DWR is operated by a clique of “insiders” who have failed to protect public safety. DWR weighs the “cost” of basic maintenance against the “risk” to peoples lives posed by the crumbling Oroville dam. Dr. Bea implies that DWR, the dam inspection agency, and regulators, cooperate to look after one another’s interests, perpetuating neglectful practices that have allowed the poorly designed dam to decay. In public comments, a resident said that having the regulators embedded with the operators of the dam is “a terrifying idea.” Dr. Robert Bea went far in trying to explain the continuing threat to public safety posed by the nearly full reservoir. It remains to be seen whether the damaged Main Spillway, and the spillway gate head-works, will stand up to water releases necessitated by melting of the record snow-pack in the High Sierras (Hearing, May 11, 2017).
California State Assembly; Joint Hearing; Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife, Accountability and Administrative Review and Subcommittee No 3 On Resources and Transportation; Informational and Oversight Hearing; Update on the Oroville dam; May 11, 2017: Video
YouTube video; Blancolirio channel, Oroville dam series: Oroville 6 April Update the 'New Spillway Design Revealed!; Published on April 7, 2017. (Time between 4:29
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; Oroville Spillway Incident Update; March 22, 2017: http://www.reddit.com/r/orovilledam/comments/60vtd2/ca_oroville_dam_spillway_incident_update_wed/