Bill Croyle, who took over as chief of the California Department of Water Resources on the eve of February's near-catastrophe at Oroville Dam, is retiring from the agency after six months on the job.
Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Croyle to fill the director's job on an acting basis following the retirement of Mark Cowin in December. In his decade at DWR, Croyle had served as the agency's emergency operations manager and flood operations chief.
On Feb. 7, however, the nature and profile of Croyle's job changed dramatically. The main concrete spillway at the State Water Project's linchpin Oroville Dam began to disintegrate in the midst of a series of major winter storms, touching off a five-day series of events that led to one of the largest mass evacuations in California history.
After the spillway damage was detected, managers at Oroville Dam stopped and started flows down the broken concrete chute to study the effects before allowing substantial flows to resume. Meantime, Lake Oroville filled rapidly and rose toward the top of an emergency weir built to allow water to flow down a steep, unlined, vegetation-covered hillside into the Feather River below.
Croyle and other DWR officials downplayed the potential effects of an overflow, which had not occurred since the dam went into operation in 1968.
The lake overtopped the weir on the morning of Feb. 11, a Saturday. Heavy erosion on the hillside was soon visible, and mud, rocks and trees tumbled into the river. As late as 2 p.m. the next day, DWR offered assurances that the situation was stable.
But in fact, the hillside below the emergency weir was rapidly eroding and DWR's concern grew that part of the massive concrete structure could collapse and unleash an uncontrolled wall of water down the Feather River. Just before 5 p.m., DWR announced that the emergency structure was expected to fail within an hour. Residents of Oroville and other downstream communities -- about 180,000 in all -- were ordered to leave their homes immediately.
Residents were allowed to return two days later as Lake Oroville receded, but remained on alert they might have to leave their homes if the water rose again.
Croyle, occupying a position that's ordinarily invisible to most Californians, became one of the public faces of the crisis. In press briefings, Croyle and the DWR officials were quick to offer statistics on lake levels and the progress of work to clean up and replace the shattered spillway. But elected officials, journalists and others criticized him for the department's decision to keep some documents about the spillway incident under wraps.
Croyle eventually reversed that decision and the agency released redacted versions of consultants' reports on the possible causes of the spillway failure and plans to rebuild it.
The acting director also defended the DWR's maintenance of the Oroville spillway, despite evidence that the structure suffered from extensive design and construction flaws and maintenance deficiencies.
Most controversially, Croyle insisted at a legislative hearing in April that despite its near-failure, the emergency spillway at Oroville had worked as intended.
That drew an angry rebuttal from Assemblyman James Gallagher, a Republican who represents many of the people in the area evacuated in February.
"In my opinion it didn’t work at all," Gallagher said. "When it started flowing and we had that erosion cut back, to me that’s a failure. It didn’t work as designed.”
In a statement issued Friday, Croyle said he had originally leave DWR in January, but stayed on at the governor's request.
“I am honored to have served with many talented, dedicated people throughout my career. I am very proud of the work we have accomplished over the years bringing California through drought, flood and most recently, through the Oroville Spillway incident,” Croyle's statement said. “And now I’m looking forward to picking up my retirement plans where they left off six months ago.”