The California Department of Water Resources revealed this week that the bill for repairs from February’s spillway failure disaster at the Oroville dam will easily exceed half a billion dollars. The final figure comes in at double the original estimate of $275 million and that is only for the prime contractor and does not include costs for other contractors, or a single cent toward paying for the emergency response.
Now that repairs are well underway and almost complete, state budget officials have a serious case of sticker shock and see no way out of it unless they can convince the federal government to pick up most of the tab. The water department already sent off a request begging for the money.
According to Erin Mellon at Water Resources, “we asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay 75 percent of the cost.” She explains the rest “will come from contractors of the State Water Project, including the Santa Clara Valley Water District, the Alameda County Water District and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.” FEMA already wrote some checks to cover costs of emergency response which add up to around $150 million, give or take $10 million, informs Mellon.
After California’s illegal immigrant population swelled out of control over decades and consumed endless millions of social service dollars, basic maintenance at Oroville dam was postponed again and again. California has now declared itself a “sanctuary state” and pitted itself against the justice department through an official policy of non-cooperation with immigration authorities. Despite the fact the state refuses to enforce federal laws, they have no hesitation to hold out their hand for federal money.
All the trouble started early in February when a huge crater appeared in the 3,000-foot long concrete channel of the main spillway. Designed to handle the water overflowing from the state’s second-largest reservoir, it was shut down for inspection. As crews stopped the flow, weather forecasters announced a major storm was about to drop a substantial amount of rain.
With nowhere to go, the water level rose to capacity and started to top the concrete barrier wall of the emergency spillway, which had never been used before. Almost immediately, the earth foundation was eroded, causing fears the barrier holding back the lake at the spillway would give way and send a 40-foot-high wall of water to deluge towns downstream.
All the way back in 2005, environmental groups complained to Federal regulators that the emergency spillway was unsafe. “In the event of heavy rain and flooding, the hillside would wash out and produce flooding downstream,” they prophetically warned. Requests to have the backup spillway paved with concrete like the primary were rejected.
In 2013 the state did limited repairs near the area of the primary spillway, where this year’s failure occurred. During the most recent inspection done in 2015, workers did a poor job and missed several warning signs. Without actually doing a physical inspection, all they did was look at it from a distance and conclude it was safe.
Almost 200,000 of the local residents had to be evacuated after fears of massive flooding when the dam’s total collapse seemed unavoidable. Thankfully, the nation’s once tallest dam held solid.
Eight months later, construction crews have nearly finished digging out the loose and unstable soil under the main spillway, filling the holes with concrete, and topping it all off with reinforced concrete slabs well anchored into the bedrock.
Like any construction project, there was a lot more digging than they expected which means a lot more concrete to fill it all back in. Twice as much was needed as planned. Crews are ahead of schedule and expect everything to wrap up by the first of November, in time to give the concrete a full month to cure before going back into service in December.
Work is expected to continue through the end of 2018. After the main spillway is finished, an underground wall 65-feet high will resist erosion on the emergency spillway. Concrete will then be poured at least 10 feet thick, running between the cutoff wall and where the spillway joins the lake.
Plans also call for the demolition and rebuilding of the entire main spillway with two different kinds of concrete. 5 to 13 feet of regular concrete will be used for leveling and then another 2.5 feet of erosion-resistant reinforced concrete will be poured on top. Other technology upgrades like vinyl water stops inside joints that were not available when the structure was built will also be added. That is if FEMA coughs up the cash to pay for it.