The crisis at the nation's tallest dam prompted a presidential disaster declaration -- and opened the way for the state to apply for reimbursement of the cost of the spillway replacement project -- an undertaking with a current cost estimate of $1.1 billion.
FEMA, which can pay 75 percent or more of qualifying expenses for disaster recovery efforts, has reimbursed the state for $333.4 million of its costs to date. That includes $128.4 million granted last year for the initial emergency response to the disaster and $205 million announced this week to pay for replacing the lower portion of the massive concrete spillway.
But FEMA says it rejected another $306.4 million in costs submitted by DWR for replacing portions of the main spillway's upper section because independent reviews found the structure suffered from flaws before the onset of winter storms and water releases that preceded the 2017 failure.
"Two separate independent engineering reviews indicate that a variety of problems existed at the dam prior to the February 2017 floods," said FEMA Region 9 spokeswoman Brandi Richard in an email Friday. "FEMA’s public assistance can only fund work directly linked to the declared disaster, and so the grant assistance request ... was not approved for the upper gated spillway."
Richard didn't elaborate on which reviews FEMA consulted before reaching its determination. But a series of studies -- including one by a forensic panel DWR appointed at the direction of federal energy regulators and an independent inquiry led by Robert Bea, a retired UC Berkeley civil engineering professor and expert on systems failures -- found that the spillway structure suffered from a wide range of design, construction and maintenance problems. Some of the issues dated back to the 1960s.
Rep. Doug LaMalfa, a Republican who represents the Oroville area and much of the region evacuated in 2017, issued a statement Friday saying FEMA's decision "should not come as a total surprise."
"FEMA has reimbursed the state for eligible emergency repairs, but repairs due to maintenance failures as well as the new structures being built are ineligible for federal reimbursement legally," LaMalfa said. "... We don’t want FEMA to come up short on other disaster assistance by misapplying funds in this case of dam mismanagement, born out in the forensic report.”
Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Yuba City, who also represents the area, sounded the same note on Twitter.