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.