Congressmen Ask: Will FEMA Refuse Payment for Oroville Spillway Work?

Ironworkers lift rebar into place as part of ongoing work to reinforce the emergency spillway hillside at Oroville Dam. (Ken James/California Department of Water Resources)

Two Northern California members of Congress are asking the Federal Emergency Management Agency to clarify under what conditions it will reimburse the state for the cost of rebuilding and rehabilitating the ruined spillways at Oroville Dam.

The request came from Reps. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, and John Garamendi, D-Fairfield, who represent Sacramento Valley districts directly impacted by last year’s Oroville spillway crisis.

The congressmen asked in a letter sent last week whether FEMA might refuse payment for reconstruction work in light of an independent forensic team’s finding that Oroville’s main spillway failed because of poor design and construction and a history of ineffective inspections and maintenance. The two House members also want to know whether agency policy will bar funding upgrades to the damaged facilities.

The reconstruction project involves total replacement of the main spillway, a 3,000-foot-by-180-foot concrete chute, and extensive reinforcement of an adjacent hillside meant to serve as an emergency spillway to channel overflow from the Lake Oroville reservoir.

The main spillway failed catastrophically a year ago and the subsequent overflow down the hillside triggered severe erosion. The erosion led in turn to fears of an uncontrolled release from the reservoir and prompted the emergency evacuation of 188,000 downstream residents.

DWR announced last month that the total cost of the Oroville incident, including the initial response to the spillway failures and the reconstruction effort, is now estimated at $870 million.

FEMA reimburses up to 75 percent of disaster costs, and DWR has said it expects to receive that full 75 percent share to help pay for the Oroville project. So far, FEMA has reimbursed DWR $86.9 million, or exactly 75 percent, of the first $115.9 million in detailed costs the department submitted.

In their Feb. 1 missive to FEMA chief William B. Long, Garamendi and LaMalfa highlighted a recent letter from Long to Congress that explained the emergency agency’s reimbursements for Puerto Rico’s hurricane recovery.

Long’s letter said the agency “does not have the authority to fund the repair of damage that may have been pre-existing due to a lack of maintenance or the age of the facility or component.”

Long added: “FEMA provides public assistance funding to restore facilities on the basis of pre-disaster design and function.”

LaMalfa and Garamendi said Long’s statements raised “critically important” questions about FEMA funding for the spillway project.

“Can you confirm that this means FEMA funding could not be used to upgrade Oroville Dam or its facilities?” their letter asked. “Does this restriction apply if it is determined that the pre-disaster design was one of the causes of the disaster in the first place, or does such a finding allow for FEMA to restore a structure to a state that will avoid future disasters?”

Both congressmen issued statements earlier this week questioning the logic of the reimbursement policies Long outlined.

“The independent forensic team determined that Oroville Dam spillway’s original design and inadequate maintenance contributed to the spillway failure nearly a year ago,” LaMalfa said. “Knowing that, what good would it do for FEMA to reimburse the state only to return the spillways to the same condition that played a role in causing the disaster in the first place?”

FEMA has not yet publicly responded to the congressmen’s questions.

Congressmen Ask: Will FEMA Refuse Payment for Oroville Spillway Work? 8 February,2018Dan Brekke


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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