The California Department of Water Resources is facing a new and potentially very costly lawsuit over the failure of the spillways at Oroville Dam a year ago.
A complaint filed in Butte County Superior Court Wednesday outlines approximately $120 million in losses claimed by more than 40 farms, businesses and other property owners along the Feather River downstream from the nation’s tallest dam.
The suit seeks double or triple damages for the largest claimed losses. Those involve crops and farmland ruined or washed away by wildly fluctuating river flows as the spillway crisis unfolded last February.
"California citizens are bearing the price of DWR’s reckless conduct," the complaint alleges. "... The catastrophe of the 'Oroville Dam crisis' was a major socioeconomic blow to the dam’s downstream communities’ residents and farmers."
DWR has said it does not comment on pending litigation.
The Oroville episode began last Feb. 7 with the appearance of a crater in the dam's concrete spillway as runoff from warm winter rains and melting snow surged into the Lake Oroville reservoir. With releases down the damaged spillway limited for several days, the reservoir filled rapidly and water overflowed down a hillside intended to serve as an emergency spillway.
For years, DWR had assured regulators that the hillside could withstand the flow of huge volumes of water without suffering dangerous erosion. But on Feb. 11, when water began tumbling down the slope for the first time in the dam's 50-year history, the hillside eroded rapidly. By the next day, the erosion prompted fears that an emergency weir at the top of the slope would collapse and trigger an uncontrolled release of water from Lake Oroville.
Those concerns led to the emergency evacuation of 188,000 from downstream communities. Independent forensic investigators issued a report last month confirming earlier findings that the main spillway was poorly designed, built and maintained. The report also said the department overlooked information that areas beneath the spillway and emergency spillway were prone to severe erosion.
Wednesday's suit was filed by the Burlingame-based firm Cotchett, Pitre and McCarthy, which made identical claims about the DWR's alleged recklessness in an action filed on behalf of the city of Oroville last month.
Last week, the agency announced that the cost of responding to the disaster and rehabilitating the dam’s main and emergency spillways has reached $870 million. That figure does not count the state’s legal fees or any future damage awards.