For California community in dam’s shadow, troubles go back decades

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By Robin Respaut

<span class="articleLocation”>For nearly 50 years, the Oroville Dam has
provided a water lifeline to residents across the state of
California. But for the community in its shadow, the dam has
been a source of contention and legal battles.

Weeks of winter storms triggered the near collapse of two of
the dam’s spillways this past week and temporary evacuation of
nearly 190,000 residents.

The crisis also brought to the surface lingering and looming
problems faced by the local community.

Butte County and green groups have fought the relicensing of
the Oroville Dam for more than a decade. They argue federal
regulators and the courts should require the state to better
fortify the emergency spillway, to reimburse the county for
dam-related costs, and to more carefully examine the effects of
climate change on the dam.

Oroville’s reservoir plays a vital role in capturing water
from California’s rainy, mountainous north and distributing it
to agricultural lands, industrial tracts, and homes from the Bay
Area to Southern California. But the community downstream says
the benefits were not returned to Butte County.

In 2005, Butte County filed a motion with the Federal Energy
Regulatory Commission (FERC), which licenses the dam, to
intervene in the state’s application to grant a new 50-year

“For many years the costs to provide services to the project
have outweighed the tourism benefits,” the county argued at the
time. The dam’s recreation facilities had become “a magnet for
crime, vandalism, trash dumping” that the county regularly had
to police and cleanup.

The nation’s tallest dam created a job boom for the region
during its construction in the 1960s. But once the project was
completed, unemployment spiked and new homes were abandoned.

In the decades since, Butte County argued it lost $267
million in potential taxes on the now-submerged land under
reservoir. The county estimated it spends $4.8 million annually
on expenses related to the dam. The state’s Department of Water
Resources, which operates the dam, calculated the county’s
losses were less, but still reached over $500,000 annually,
according to a 2007 environmental study.

Conservation groups Friends of the River and the Sierra Club also raised issues, requesting that the dam’s relicensing be
contingent on stronger fortification of the emergency spillway
— which nearly failed this week.

“We were told repeatedly that the spillways and the dam were
all just fine,” said Friends of the River’s Executive Director
Eric Wesselman. “The events unfolding at Oroville should be a
wake-up call that there are thousands of unsafe dams and levees
in the country.”

FERC consultants dismissed concerns about the emergency
spillway in a 2006 memo. But on Monday, the federal agency
requested an independent “forensic analysis to determine both
the cause of the spillway failure and whether it could occur

FERC spokeswoman Celeste Miller would not say how the
damaged spillways impacted the state’s application to relicense
the dam.

In 2008, Butte County also sued the state’s Department of
Water Resources, accusing it of avoiding a rigorous assessment
of the effects of climate change on the dam.

The lawsuit came three years after Governor Arnold
Schwarzenegger warned that climate change threatened to “greatly
reduce the Sierra snowpack, one of the state’s primary sources
of water.”

The state needs to consider the wild swings in climate
conditions, not just the effects of drought, when re-evaluating
the safety of dams, said Butte County Counsel Bruce Alpert.

“I don’t know what’s coming in the future, but they haven’t
studied it,” Albert said.

The state says it completed a climate analysis over a decade
ago. In 2012, a judge ruled against Butte County, writing that “current climate change science does not allow for
project-specific forecasting,” and the state’s environmental
study “should not be based on speculation.”

The county appealed. The case is now before California 3rd
District Court of Appeals.

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