Water Flows Down Oroville Dam's Rebuilt Spillway for First Time Since 2017 Crisis

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Water flows down the Oroville Dam's rebuilt main spillway on Tuesday for the first time since the spillway disintegrated during heavy runoffs in 2017. (Dan Brekke/KQED)

Officials at Oroville Dam in Butte County unleashed water down the dam's rebuilt spillway on Tuesday for the first time since it crumbled two years ago and drove hundreds of thousands of residents from their homes over fears of catastrophic flooding.

Water flowed down the main spillway and into the Feather River as storms this week and melting snowpack were expected to swell Lake Oroville in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, said Molly White, principal engineer with the California Department of Water Resources.

The spring storms follow a very wet winter that coated the Sierra with thick snowpack, which state experts will coincidentally measure on Tuesday to determine the outlook for California's water supplies.

Snow surveyors will likely find a snowpack at about 160 percent of average.

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Oroville Dam's new main spillway "was designed and constructed using 21st century engineering practices and under the oversight and guidance from state and federal regulators and independent experts," Joel Ledesma, deputy director of the department's State Water Project, said in a statement.

"We spent the last two years restoring full functionality of the spillway. We expect it to run as designed," Ledesma said during a news conference.

The original spillway on the 770-foot-high dam — the nation's tallest dam — was built in the 1960s.

In early 2017, storms drenched the state and the massive spillway broke apart as it carried heavy flows.

Water cascades down the wrecked Oroville Dam spillway on February 13, 2017.
Water cascades down the Oroville Dam's wrecked main spillway on February 13, 2017. At the top of the main spillway to the left is the earthen emergency spillway, which quickly began to erode when it was used. (JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Dam operators reduced the flow and allowed water to run down an emergency spillway — essentially a low area on the reservoir's rim — but the flow began eroding the earthen embankment that had never been used.

Authorities suddenly had to order an evacuation of nearly 200,000 people living in communities downstream.

The Oroville Dam Spillway Saga
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The threat of a dam collapse that would unleash a torrent of water did not happen, however, and people were allowed to go home days later.

In January 2018, an independent panel of dam safety experts released a nearly 600-page report that blamed the crisis on "long-term and systemic failures" by California dam managers and regulators to recognize inherent construction and design flaws in the dam.

Repairs have cost $1.1 billion. California requested about $639 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the fixes, but the federal government has rejected $306 million of those reimbursements.

U.S. officials say the dam's upper gated spillway was damaged prior to the heavy rain two years ago.

Local water agencies are already paying some of the repair costs, and they would cover anything not paid by the federal government.

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