Oroville Dam crisis eases as 180,000 flee to higher ground

February 13, 2017 3:56am
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•  Lake level finally drops so emergency spillway not needed

•  Massive repairs needed

•  UPDATED @ 12:31 p.m. Monday

Editor's note: This story supplants the CVBT story on this event first published at 5:05 p.m. Sunday.)

With as many as 180,000 Central Valley residents evacuated and with the level of Lake Oroville finally low enough to stop pouring through an emergency spillway at the damaged dam, the crisis appears to have eased at the nation's talent dam.

“Lake levels are continuing to fall. Our object is to lower the lake level by 50 feet,” says Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea at a midday Monday news conference. That would allow enough space for the runoff from storms predicted for the end of the week, he said.

“This is still a dynamic situation,” Mr. Honea says, adding that the mandatory evacuation is still in effect with no time set for ending it. “We’re working on a repopulation plan to allow for a safe and orderly return of citizens to their homes.”

“The integrity of the dam is not impacted by the damage to the spillway itself or the use or the erosion that's occurred at the emergency spillway, and so the dam is solid,” said Bill Croyle, acting director of the state Department of Water Resources, at an 11 p.m. news conference Sunday.

He told the Monday midday news conference that the lake was being drained through its normal spillway at the rate of 100,000 cubic feet per second.

The main spillway’s damage – an eroded sinkhole -- is dramatic in the television videos.

“We determined we could not fix the hole, it was 250 feet long, 170 feet wide, and almost 40-50 feet deep,” Mr. Croyle said.

Residents from the city of Oroville southward to Marysville and Yuba City were ordered to move to higher ground Sunday night. While many went to shelters set up in Chico and other locations and others drove to friends or relatives out of the area, many seemingly had no idea where to go, based on interviews by television reporters. Many jammed into the gas stations that were still open to fill their cars’ tanks.

Tensions rose Saturday as Lake Oroville, which covers more than 15,000 acres and holds roughly 3.5 million acre-feet of water, reached capacity and the sinkhole in the main spillway kept growing.

The dam’s emergency spillway, which had never been used, was opened and torrents of water thundered down the earthen dam, eroding giant gouges along the way.

The order went out about 5 p.m. for emergency evacuations as officials feared the erosion problems would worsen and could lead to failure of the structure, flooding the Feather River, which runs through downtown Oroville, along with communities south toward Sacramento.

Such high water could also put pressure on levees, possible causing levee failures and a much more widespread flood.

“It’s clear the circumstances are complex and rapidly changing,” California Gov. Edmund Gerald Brown Jr. noted in a written statement. He proclaimed a state of emergency in Butte, Sutter and Yuba counties and ordered mobilization of the National Guard to assist if needed.

How the giant dam, the nation’s tallest and the world’s second-largest earth-filled dam, might be fixed awaits inspections after dawn Monday.

Meanwhile, forecasters are predicting that more rainstorms should hit California by the end of the week, pushing still more water into the lake.

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