The state was ordered to use outside experts to determine what went wrong in last February’s Lake Oroville spillway debacle. It remains an open question as to whether the state will actually listen to those experts.
An independent team of dam-safety experts was assembled by the state Department of Water Resources at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s direction after the spillway crumbled.
The independent team’s final report won’t be finished until fall. It promises to address whether DWR’s insular culture and other “organizational factors” contributed to an inability to recognize problems ahead of time.
The team demonstrated its independence by releasing an interim report early. It did so act after DWR’s demand for a statewide review of all dams and spillways. The interim report said inspections alone aren’t enough. It argued they must be conducted in conjunction with independent reviews of original design and construction to help “connect the dots.”
The report also said reviews of the original design and construction, compared with current best practices, should be “critical and independent, rather than relying largely on findings of past reviews.” That’s good. Too often DWR is wont to explain that something is not a problem because somebody a long time ago said it wasn’t a problem.
Under this “connect the dots” scenario, with cross-checking and independent verification, perhaps the Oroville spillway’s flaws could have been discovered. There were cracks in the thinnest part of the spillway, the drainage system wasn’t working as designed and there was a hole in the spillway the month before the rupture that was captured by a Chico Enterprise-Record photographer but not detected by DWR inspections.
So far DWR is talking a good game. Spokeswoman Erin Mellon says the state agency agrees there must be a new way to evaluate dams and their related facilities, not just by the state but by all dam operators. But the proof will be in the follow through.
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To the DWR Lake Oroville’s water is a commodity to be delivered to San Joaquin Valley farms and the cities in the south state as cheaply as possible.
The DWR is very good at ignoring what it doesn’t want to hear. Whether it’s warnings about the inadequacy of the emergency spillway, distrust in the community over its lack of transparency, concerns over the true costs of the Oroville hydroelectric project or the clumsiness in communication with the public before and after the spillway collapse, the agency seems convinced it is right and everybody else is wrong.
Which brings us back to the independent report. FERC is considering whether to grant the DWR a new license to continue to operate the Oroville project. We urge FERC to insist that any license renewal depend on the DWR making the recommended changes.