State's Water Chief: Despite Crisis, Oroville Dam's Emergency Spillway 'Worked'

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California Department of Water Resources crews evaluate erosion along Oroville Dam's emergency spillway on Feb. 13, the day after the emergency evacuation of residents downstream.  (Kelly M. Grow/California Department of Water Resources)

SACRAMENTO — The head of California's water agency on Tuesday repeated his assertion that an emergency spillway at the Oroville Dam worked, drawing an incredulous response from a state lawmaker who represents tens of thousands of people ordered to evacuate when it was feared erosion at the spillway could lead to catastrophic flooding.

Bill Croyle, acting director of the Department of Water Resources, faced lawmakers for the first time since the evacuations in February. Authorities feared a concrete wall at the top of the emergency spillway was on the verge of collapsing and sending a wall of water rushing uncontrolled through downstream communities.

"In my opinion it didn't work at all," said Assemblyman James Gallagher, a Republican who represents many of the nearly 200,000 people who were ordered to evacuate. "When it started flowing and we had that erosion cut back, to me that's a failure. It didn't work as designed."

Croyle has controversially maintained since the days after the evacuation that the spillway did its job, though he's acknowledged that the erosion was more severe than anticipated. He told lawmakers that experts did not expect water to cut through rock.

"I believe the emergency spillway worked," Croyle said. "It performed an emergency function with the broken (main) spillway."

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A breach appeared in the main spillway Feb. 7 as releases from Lake Oroville were ramped up to make room in the reservoir for a surge of runoff from a series of warm winter storms. The breach led dam managers to limit releases out of the damaged structure, and by Feb. 11 the lake filled and water began flowing over the emergency spillway for the first time since the dam went into service in 1968.

Lawmakers also questioned Croyle about details of the $275 million contract to shore up both the main and emergency spillway, including who negotiated it and what penalties or incentives it includes for the contractor.

Croyle said he didn't know details of the contract but would provide them later.

Erin Mellon, a spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Agency, said after the hearing that the contract with Kiewit Corp. of Omaha, Nebraska, covers work through January 2019. That should be enough time to repair the entire main spillway and shore up the emergency spillway, she said.

The DWR's plan involves rebuilding enough of the main spillway to restore it to service by the anticipated return of the rainy season in November. At the same time, work will proceed on improving the area below the emergency to limit erosion there in the event of another overflow.