Minute by minute: What if Oroville Dam’s spillway had failed one year ago?

2.12.18: On the anniversary of the Oroville Dam disaster, Sacramento Valley citizens of all political stripes have retained a deep distrust of the California Department of Water Resources. This article from the Sacramento Bee describes the scenario that came close to occurring on the night of Feb. 12, 2017 when the “emergency spillway” began to crumble, threatening the people of Oroville with a deadly 30’ wall of debris-laden flood water. Read the full article here.

Significant Legal Win for North State: 10-Year Water Transfer Program Failed Analysis and Disclosure

The federal district court in Fresno issued a strong order yesterday supporting many of the claims made by AquAlliance and co-plaintiff partners. The lawsuit was filed in May 2015 against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) and San Luis Delta Mendota Water Authority (SLDMWA) over their inadequate disclosure, avoidance of impacts, and mitigation of major water transfers from the Sacramento Valley through the Delta to the San Joaquin Valley.

AquAlliance Executive Director Barbara Vlamis stated, “AquAlliance is elated that the court found in favor of many of our legal arguments that seek to protect the communities, environment, and groundwater dependent farmers in the Sacramento Valley as well as Delta farmers and fish. This ruling exposes the danger posed by the 10-Year Water Transfer Program’s water-grab that would benefit agricultural interests with junior water rights growing permanent crops in a desert.”

Click link to read:

Final verdict on Oroville Dam: ‘Long-term systemic failure’ by the state, regulators

January 5, 2018
By Dale Kasler & Ryan Sabalow

The forensic team investigating the February emergency at Oroville Dam blasted the California Department of Water Resources on Friday, saying the dam’s owner and operator did a poor job of designing, building and maintaining the structure and neglected safety while focusing on the “water delivery needs” of its customers to the south.

Citing a “long-term systemic failure” by both DWR and federal regulators, the group of independent investigators released its final report Friday on the nearly catastrophic fracture in the dam’s main flood-control spillway in early February, which eventually forced the evacuation of 188,000 downstream residents.

Click link to view:







In this Feb. 20, 2017, file photo, a member of Cal Fire, right, talks to workers on the Oroville Dam project in front of the main spillway in Oroville, Calif. Hector Amezcua The Sacramento Bee


SAVE THE DATES! Vernal Pool Landscapes: Past, Present, and Future – April 11-12-13, 2018

Photo from the 2014 vernal pool conference field trip at Arroyo Chico property, Chico, California.

Vernal Pool Landscapes: Past, Present, and Future is a conference that will be held in Chico, California on Wednesday and Thursday, April 11th and 12th, 2018 at the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company in Chico.[1] Eminent scholars, agency representatives, and other professionals will present research and case studies regarding plant and animal species dependent on vernal pool landscapes, conservation efforts, legal cases, and management techniques that have been used to enhance the economic and biological viability of certain lands.

Field trips will take place on April 13, 2018. The number of participants is limited.

Registration will be available starting in December and will be placed on the AquAlliance web site along with program updates at: www.aqualliance.net.

[1] Known as one of the premiere venues for Americana and roots music on the West Coast, the Big Room is Sierra Nevada’s beautiful live music and event venue located at our Chico, California brewery. With just 350 seats, the Big Room has gained a reputation for an intimate, small venue setting, and over the years, has hosted recording artists from all over the country. If you haven’t seen a Big Room show, we encourage you to check out this truly unique concert experience. https://sierranevada.com/brewery/california/big-room


Federal Water Agency Failed to Disclose Funding for Twin Tunnels

9.8.17: The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation failed to reveal significant funding for the Twin Tunnels. The Office of the Inspector General for the Interior Department stated that, “…USBR did not disclose the full cost of its participation in the BDCP, subsidized CVP water contractors, and converted $50 million in Federal funds from reimbursable to nonreimbursable without documentation to support its determination that the funds should be nonreimbursable.”

The Bureau is the same federal agency that AquAlliance is suing over their plans to transfer in ten years more water from the NorthState than the City of Chico would use in 200 years [see Lawsuit Filed Against 10-Year Water Transfer Program]. AquAlliance also filed its first lawsuit over the Twin Tunnels in August 2017 [see Lawsuit Filed Against Twin Tunnels (aka WaterFix)].

Click links for:

DWR still makes missteps with communication

It took a few months, but the state Department of Water Resources finally admitted to poor communication in the wake of the Lake Oroville spillway disaster.
Now the state agency is back to its old ways — if it ever changed at all.

DWR’s ham-handed approach to the public and even other government agencies was bothersome early on, but not surprising to anyone who has paid attention for a few years.

This is a public agency prone to telling other public agencies not to talk to the public. From slapping a gag order on participants in a relicensing agreement 11 years ago to ordering workers not to talk to anyone about an accident at the Hyatt Powerplant under the dam eight years ago, DWR has established a pattern that didn’t change with this crisis.

Beginning before the evacuation, DWR wasn’t forthright with information or the acting director was making comments that upset people. In public meetings much later, DWR officials apologized for a lack of transparency and poor communication and vowed to do better.

There’s still a lot of room for improvement.

Four incidents in the past two weeks provide proof.

  • After 10:30 p.m. on a Tuesday night, Aug. 15, our night editor heard on the scanner a report of firefighters being called to a fire at the spillway. We couldn’t get information that night before press start. The next day, reporter Andre Byik sent a text message to Bill LaGrone, the head of Oroville’s police and fire departments, asking if he knew anything. It was the first he had heard of a fire at the spillway.

Fortunately, he was sitting in a weekly meeting where government agencies involved in the Oroville spillway response share and compare notes. The fire never came up, and at a meeting like that it should, so LaGrone finally raised the question.

He was told a portable generator caught fire at the dam’s spillway parking lot. Cal Fire-Butte County responded, and a city fire truck was called off before it arrived.
Not mentioning the fire was certainly an error of omission.

  • Some individuals said they felt pressured by DWR to not sign a letter asking the federal government to delay relicensing of the Oroville project until more is known about the causes of the spillway collapse. It’s a valid request, but DWR has been itching for years to get a new license.
  • The DWR has verbally come out against this request for a delay with the DWR making subtle threats to some of the signatories,” said Oroville Chamber of Commerce CEO Sandy Linville. “ However, we stand unwavered in our resolve that we want our safety to be paramount above anything else.”As it should be.
  • The DWR dumped spawning gravel in the Feather River so adult salmon this fall will have a place to lay eggs. A lot of the gravel was washed away in the spillway flooding, leaving a silty bottom not conducive to spawning.It’s just a fraction of what needs to be done for fisheries to repair environmental damage from the spillway. DWR says it will do much more if it gets a license.
    Wait. Shouldn’t DWR be fixing the environmental damage regardless?
  • After we ran a story about the latest report by the Board of Consultants looking into the causes and solutions after the spillway failure, headlined “ Board of Consultants has concerns about temporary roller compacted concrete,” DWR public affairs assistant director Erin Mellon emailed us to take exception to our use of the term “concerns.”She said using the term “concerns” was subjective, and added, “ To say everything noted in these memos is a concern is overstating it.”

    She also said we should have highlighted the positive things the consultants said about the work being done at the spillway.

So DWR has time to critique nouns by reporters but not enough time to report a fire at the spillway construction site? This gets more alarming all the time.


Lawsuit Challenges Destructive Delta Tunnels Project in California

SACRAMENTO, Calif.— A coalition of conservation groups today sued the California Department of Water Resources (“DWR”) over its approval of the controversial Delta tunnels project.

The lawsuit was filed in Sacramento Superior Court by AquAlliance, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, California Water Impact Network, Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Food Safety, Friends of the River, Friends of Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, Planning and Conservation League, Restore the Delta, Save Our Sandhill Cranes and Sierra Club California.

“Once again Big Ag in the San Joaquin Valley has come begging for more corporate welfare,” said Adam Keats, a senior attorney at the Center for Food Safety. “Only this time it’s at an obscene scale, with tens of billions of dollars to be pilfered from the people’s pockets, an entire ecosystem driven to collapse, and incredible harm caused to the Delta farming economy and California’s sustainable salmon fishery.”

Click link to read the full press release: Tunnels CEQA lawsuit PR 8-18-17 Coalition

Lawsuit Filed Against Twin Tunnels (aka WaterFix)

DWR Gets Another Failing Grade

Chico, CA: AquAlliance and a coalition filed a lawsuit in state court against the Department of Water Resources (DWR)) over their Environmental Impact Report’s (EIR) inadequate disclosure, avoidance of impacts, analysis, and mitigation for the proposed Twin Tunnels. The over 50,000-page EIR was certified by DWR on July 21, 2017.

“Californians aren’t doomed to repeat past destructive practices that have emptied the Owens Valley and caused the literal collapse of the San Joaquin Valley,” asserted Barbara Vlamis, AquAlliance’s Executive Director. “We are smart enough now to know that the Twin Tunnels would destroy California’s largest river’s watershed and valley, which is essential for the health of the entire state. “

To that end, some of the most significant CEQA allegations produced by AquAlliance in the lawsuit to stop the WaterFix include that the EIR:

  • Failed to identify the source water that is intended to make up for flows diverted through the Twin Tunnels.
  • Failed to disclose the over appropriation of water rights in the Sacramento River Watershed.
  • Failed to disclose the existing conditions of Sacramento Valley groundwater.
  • Failed to disclose and analyze the direct and indirect groundwater impacts to the AquAlliance Press Release Twin TunnelsSacramento Valley that would result from expanded north-to south, cross-Delta water transfers.

Click link to view the full press release: AquAlliance Press Release Twin Tunnels

Why is the state withholding asbestos records at Oroville Dam?

6.7.2017– By Ryan Sabalow 

In the latest skirmish over transparency at the troubled Oroville Dam, a Northern California activist group has sued state officials alleging they’re illegally withholding information about potentially toxic asbestos.

AquAlliance, a Chico-based advocacy group focused on Sacramento Valley water issues, filed a lawsuit in Sacramento County Superior Court on Tuesday alleging the Department of Water Resources broke state records laws when it denied the group’s request for emails containing information about the asbestos at the dam. The state did release nine documents, the group said, but not the relevant emails.

The suit claims the DWR told the group the records didn’t exist or were protected from disclosure by attorney-client privilege. The group’s executive director, Barbara Vlamis, said she has no idea whether there is anything in the records that could show the state is putting the public at risk, but she doesn’t like the idea of the state hiding information.

“There may be nothing damning at all in the material,” she said. “Well, then, let’s see it.”

An Oroville Dam spokeswoman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Asbestos occurs naturally in certain types of rock around Northern California, but DWR officials have insisted since crews began working on the troubled dam’s badly damaged spillways this winter that there’s no risk to the public. The agency says it’s also taking steps to keep asbestos dust out of the lungs of those working on the dam.

The suit is the latest in a tug of war between the state and members of the public over Oroville Dam records.

The state has denied the Sacramento Bee’s requests for certain technical documents and dam safety records. The agency also hasn’t yet fulfilled a request the paper made in February seeking emails from top DWR officials during the spillway crisis that triggered the evacuation of 188,000 people.

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalowrsabalow@sacbee.com