An aerial view of the damaged Oroville Dam spillway, Feb. 27, 2017.

An aerial view of the damaged Oroville Dam spillway, Feb. 27, 2017. (Dale Kolke / California Department of Water Resources)

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A suit filed Wednesday by the city of Oroville accuses the California Department of Water Resources of a long pattern of recklessness and corruption that ultimately led to last February’s near-catastrophe at the nation’s tallest dam.

The action filed on behalf of the city in Butte County Superior Court in Chico seeks unspecified damages from DWR for allegedly failing to maintain the massive concrete spillway and other facilities in a safe condition.

The complaint (embedded below) also includes new accusations, including DWR’s alleged tolerance of “a toxic culture and hostile work environment at Oroville Dam” that impacted workers there and undermined the facility’s maintenance and safety.

About 188,000 people were told to leave communities along the Feather River last February after the failure of Oroville Dam’s main spillway and the subsequent rapid deterioration of the adjacent emergency spillway.

Citing findings from both an official team of forensic experts and an outside group of analysts led by Robert Bea, a professor emeritus of civil engineering at UC Berkeley, the suit says the spillway crisis “was caused by decades of mismanagement and intentional lack of maintenance” by DWR.

The agency’s management was “a den of improper conduct, and management went so far as to fabricate required reports,” the suit says.

Among the allegations in the suit:

  • That DWR’s maintenance of the spillway, in particular, was long known to be inadequate. Among other things, the suit alleges that agency officials “would mark projects or tasks as complete when they had not even been started, and reports were filed indicating that they were done.”
  • That DWR has attempted to cover up evidence of its poor management of the dam and of safety problems there by destroying evidence at the shattered concrete spillway and redacting reports on the structure and the effort to rebuild it.
  • That department leadership has deferred to the demands of the State Water Contractors — more than two dozen water agencies who pay for operations and maintenance at Oroville and other State Water Project facilities — to put off maintenance and safety studies at the dam.
  • That DWR attempted to silence employees who voiced concerns about operations at Oroville.
  • That DWR maintained two sets of books in an attempt to conceal its true costs and spending.
  • That two Oroville Dam supervisors — both specifically named in the complaint — engaged in a range of improper or illegal conduct, including theft, purchase of substandard supplies and cronyism in awarding overtime.
  • That women and minority workers at the Oroville site were subject to sexual and racial harassment that was known to supervisors and went unpunished. The suit includes a picture of a noose that it says was hung in a meeting room and directed at an African-American employee at the Oroville facility.

Department of Water Resources spokeswoman Erin Mellon said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

Scott Huber, Oroville’s city attorney, said in a statement that the emergency evacuation last February was devastating to the community and “caused an unnecessary crisis that should have been seen coming over the past several years.”

“DWR’s alleged failures are well documented in the public record,” said Adam Shapiro of Burlingame-based Cotchett, Pitre and McCarthy, one of the firms representing the city. “The complaint says this crisis was caused not by an act of God, but by a failure of management and supervision.”

Earlier this month, an independent forensic team appointed to investigate last February’s near-disaster issued a report saying DWR had for decades missed warning signs that the concrete spillway was headed for failure. The 584-page document also faults “long-term systemic failures” by the DWR, its regulators and the dam industry to address the spillway’s vulnerabilities.

The forensic team also said the agency was somewhat “overconfident and complacent” in regard to the integrity of State Water Project facilities. The team’s report called for organizational and cultural changes at DWR to emphasize dam safety.

At a state Assembly oversight committee last week, DWR officials said they disagreed that the agency had been complacent and said they were already acting to strengthen its approach to dam safety.

Wednesday’s lawsuit signals what could be a wave of lawsuits arising from last year’s spillway crisis. The city of Oroville is one of hundreds of parties that last year filed nearly 500 claims worth an estimated $1.2 billion against the state for losses reportedly suffered during the spillway crisis.

As of last week, the Department of General Services, which administers the state’s Government Claims program, had rejected every one of the more than 350 claims it had reviewed. That includes the Oroville claim, which was turned down last July.

For those who want to pursue their claims, filing suit is the next step. Lawyers for several clients who submitted large claims last year have said they intend to file lawsuits sometime this month.

Among the potential suits is one for a Butte County farming operation that said it lost 27 acres of walnut orchards to erosion as a result of the spillway emergency and subsequent water release decisions made by the Department of Water Resources. That claim, filed in August on behalf of JEM Farms and Chandon Ranch, was for $15.45 billion.

A separate claim sought $1 billion for other landowners along the Feather River who reported losing land or suffering other damages after the spillway failure.

Any damages awarded in future legal actions would come on top of the state’s cost for responding to the spillway failure, rebuilding the massive concrete structure and building a new protective system for the unlined emergency spillway — costs that could top $600 million. The Department of Water Resources has said it hopes that the Federal Emergency Management Agency will cover 75 percent of the price tag.

Oroville Suit Alleges DWR Corruption, Recklessness Led to Spillway Crisis 18 January,2018Dan Brekke

  • Jeffrey Hare

    It is noteworthy that the day after they ordered the evacuation of 188,000 people in the path of Oroville, the Santa Clara Valley Water District submitted a request to DWR/DSOD to review a plan to install emergency pumps at Anderson Dam, which – a week later — overspilled and flooded portions of Santa Clara County and resulted in mandatory evacuation orders. DWR/DSOD was so distracted by what was going on in Oroville they did not provide a meaningful response to SCVWD until March 2, which was 12 days after the Santa Clara County flooding.

  • Alex Torres

    The spillway crisis should be a wake up call, noting that hydroelectric power has more detrimental effect to the environment than the positive effects of its renewable energy. In this case, the spillway crisis threatened the livelihood of a whole community and the landscape. The engineers that were aware of the damages, had a moral responsibility to follow their code of ethics and inform the public of the potential threat. Not only does the dams risk the lives of residents around them, they affect the biodiversity that is concentrated around the rivers. A cultural significant keystone species, the salmon, is unable to reproduce due to the blockage of the streams and lakes, this leads to a direct unbalance in the food web. Salmon and other animals that are affected by dams are critical for indigenous tribes to sustain their culture and livelihoods. These are some of the issues that are unheard of when discussing the dangers of dams. I believe we should encourage wind and solar energy, in order discontinue dams and restore the environments and communities affected by hydroelectric power.

  • Borgus

    This brings to mind a line from the best movie on water and California, Chinatown.
    “As little as possible.”

    • Dan Brekke

      I had to look it up. Great line.

  • Don Colson

    “This was not an act of God. This was not just a wild rainstorm. This went back 20 years of neglect,” said Joseph Cotchett, the lead attorney.

    Will the truth come to the surface?

    The failure of the Main Spillway on February 7, 2017 is an example of why improvements are needed, but I am not sure DWR is the one to implement these changes. My name is Don Colson and I worked in the Division of Design from 1961 to 1996.

    By now many have heard the silly story about a young engineer that designed this spillway. The Independent Forensic Team (IFT) should be ashamed since they included such a store in their 584 page report. All one has to do to find the truth is to read the USBR’s Model Study Report Hyd-510. I want to mention the design of the Headworks structure. There are serious concerns about this structure. Can it be restored? There are many signs showing that it too is in a state of failure. DWR is using a two phase approach for the fix at the spillway. Personally, I believe they have made another mistake. The disposition of this structure should have been the first order of business.

    The IFT was supposed to be searching for the root cause of the failure. They used 11 months to create their report and they could only come up with many possible reasons. I was able to see the cause in the following 10 days for the failure. This Spillway chute wasn’t built as intended by the original designers. The place where it failed had a foundation of decomposed rock, basically dirt. The IFT actually found this too.They wrote about the foundation requirements being relaxed. This would or should have required a Change Order stating the reason for this relaxation and what it meant. I have concluded their report includes a lot of information to confuse others.

    I am on record as saying the Spillway chute was not constructed as intended by the original designers. I can prove this. DWR has a document called Bulletin 200, produced in 1974, six years after the completion of the construction work. Again, the chute for the spillway was supposed to have foundation on sound rock (meaning slightly weathered) or it would be place on backfill concrete. This would have been similar to what Kiewit has done by using roller compacted concrete (RCC) for the repair work done this last summer.

    Perhaps you’ve heard others complaining about a regulation DWR is still hiding behind. They do not want anyone looking over their shoulder. Did this idea come from or was it suggested by a consulting firm? The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has allowed this request from DWR as they claimed there is need for this regulation because of the Critical Electric Infrastructure Information (CEII). PG&E will tell you that the Hyatt Powerplant is not critical the Western Power Grid. CEII is a sham and some of us know the reason why.

    DWR is exempt from the law governing State Contract work. This is not health.Also, over the years since my retirement DWR has built a top heavy Department with managers that lack engineering qualifications. These mangers will boldly tell you that his is not necessary. It is a fact that two consulting firms for DWR have hired employees and/or executive managers that retired to make more money. This is not a healthy arrangement and it reminds me of the old saying about the best Backstop for Corruption is Transparency.

    I want to mention the what IFT glossed over. It was the decision that leads to the evacuation of a 188,000 citizens. The IFT has refused to name this manager or persons that ordered the reduction from 65,000 cfs to 55,000 cfs on that critical Friday night, February 10, 2017. This was a terrible mistake. It did add a lot to the work and cost for the spillways repair. I wrote a report about this, I am sorry my report didn’t take
    root. I want to mention the IFT never contacted me. You can draw your own conclusions.

    Something else happened as a result of that bad decision. DWR cranked up the releases at the Main Spillway to 100,000 cfs on Sunday, February 12, 2017 to without as I recall any consideration given to what engineers call a Rapid Drawdown. This can be or could have been extremely dangerous and possibly could have cause of a slope failure on the upstream face of Oroville Dam. Others have organizations recommended holding the criteria for drawdown at one foot per 24 hours. If there had of been a slope failure, what can I say; yes the people in Sacramento could have been flooded too.

    I think most interested engineers have heard about the Dam’s Green Spot. DWR has been very casual, by saying it has been there for years, so don’t worry. It is important to determine whether or not there is such a thing as internal erosion occurring. DWR feels still feels this is not a problem. Do you trust them? Please recall those inspection reports for the spillway chute. I don’t trust them.


Dan Brekke

Dan Brekke is a blogger, reporter and editor for KQED News, responsible for online breaking news coverage of topics ranging from California water issues to the Bay Area’s transportation challenges. In a newsroom career that began in Chicago in 1972, Dan has worked as a city and foreign/national editor for The San Francisco Examiner, editor at Wired News, deputy editor at Wired magazine, managing editor at TechTV as well as for several Web startups.

Since joining KQED in 2007, Dan has reported, edited and produced both radio and online features and breaking news pieces. He has shared in two Society of Professional Journalists Norcal Excellence in Journalism awards — for his 2012 reporting on a KQED Science series on water and power in California, and in 2014, for KQED’s comprehensive reporting on the south Napa earthquake.

In addition to his 44 years of on-the-job education, Dan is a lifelong student of history and is still pursuing an undergraduate degree.

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