Coalition Asks Feds to Lift Secrecy Shrouding Oroville Spillway Project

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A hole in the side of the 'training wall' of Oroville Dam's crippled main spillway.  (Florence Low / California Department of Water Resources)

Updated 1:55 p.m.

With state water officials withholding key details about plans for the reconstruction of Oroville Dam's shattered spillway, a coalition of environmental groups has filed an extraordinary request with federal regulators to open up details of the project for public review and input.

Five Northern California groups filed the 13-page "request for clarification and public process" with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Wednesday.

The filing says the organizations recognize the need to move quickly to rebuild the Oroville spillways, but challenges the California Department of Water Resources' assertion that details of the reconstruction project must be withheld to protect the dam from terrorist sabotage.

"These rocks and concrete are not now nor are they likely to be as reconstruction proceeds a terrorist target," the document says.


The coalition filing the request includes Friends of the River, the Sierra Club, the South Yuba River Citizens League, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance and American Whitewater.

"We're asking the commission to recognize that this is an extraordinary circumstance," Ron Stork, executive policy advocate with Friends of the River, said in an interview Thursday. "They've got to invent a proceeding that allows information to be transparent for the interested and informed public to participate real time while expeditiously doing a reconstruction project that is a good one."

State water officials have yet to respond to requests for comment.

All of the groups were involved in an unsuccessful attempt more than a decade ago to persuade FERC and the California Department of Water Resources to consider strengthening the emergency spillway system that was at the center of the near-catastrophe at the dam in February.

On Feb. 7, with a series of warm winter storms triggering a surge of runoff into Lake Oroville, a large crater appeared in the dam's 3,000-foot-long concrete spillway. Several days later, that led to the first-ever overflow of the dam's ungated emergency weir and down the adjacent unpaved hillside. Extensive erosion threatened to undermine the emergency weir and release a wall of water down the Feather River, prompting authorities to order the evacuation of more than 180,000 people.

The central issue in the request filed with federal regulators on Wednesday is the secrecy surrounding plans to rebuild the damaged main spillway and improve the emergency spillway system. State water officials have placed details of the plans, including contractors' bids to do the work, beyond public view by classifying them as critical electric infrastructure information.

That designation, made under a federal law first passed after the 9/11 attacks, is meant to deny terrorists information they could use to sabotage the nation's electrical infrastructure. State officials have not disclosed what aspects of the spillway project might prove useful to potential saboteurs, but they have said they are relying on consultations with Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea to decide whether redacted versions of project documents might be released in the future.

Among the documents the DWR is withholding are reports from the board of consultants hired to review the department's spillway reconstruction plans. The board, in an initial report FERC released last month, raised questions about the damaged structure's construction and repair history. DWR Acting Director Bill Croyle said later the report should not have been made public.

The DWR's stance has drawn criticism from the two state legislators who represent the area, state Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Tehama, and Assemblyman James Gallagher, who earlier this week sent a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown urging release of redacted versions of the board of consultants' reports and other information.

Stork, the Friends of the River senior policy advocate, said that FERC's traditional processes for assessing and certifying dam safety and for relicensing facilities are ill-suited to the situation at Oroville.

Relicensing takes years, he said, and FERC's dam-safety process "does not allow for any kind of public participation, at least any informed participation, because all of the information is secret."

Meantime, work has already begun on the dam's spillway, and a contract has been awarded even before final decisions have been made on the design and scope of the project.

"They're making decisions that bear on how safe Oroville Dam will be in the future, how well it can perform its various functions, including its flood-control functions," Stork said. "These flood-control issues are really critical to downstream communities, and for them not to have a say in this matter is inappropriate. It's wrong."