Lessons Learned from Oroville Disaster

  |  Commentary by Senator Jim Nielsen (R-Tehama)

Sunday, February 12, 2017 was a day many of us will forever remember.

I was working on our property when an aide called to inform me that the integrity of the Oroville Dam Spillway was compromised that an estimated 30-foot wall of water was about to uncontrollably rush out of the spillway, and that Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea had called for a mandatory evacuation.

Knowing Sheriff Honea to be a measured person, I knew he would not call for such an order without strong evidence. He must have weighed all the factors in his thoughts and deliberation.

Immediately, I contacted him to offer my full support.

Soon thereafter, nearly 200,000 people of the North State, from Plumas Lake to Oroville, quickly loaded their treasured possessions and pets and evacuated via congested highways.

Despite heavy traffic, residents – no doubt fearing the unknown and dealing with anxiety – evacuated without chaos.

Law enforcement officials and volunteers directed citizens to where they needed to go. Hundreds of first responders assisted and transported those who were most vulnerable. Residents of neighboring regions opened their homes to displaced families.

In this time of high stress and unease, the citizens of our region held their heads high and acted admirably.

Over the next few days, Assemblyman James Gallagher (R-Yuba City) and I visited residents at the evacuation centers. We talked and shared cookies and donuts with our friends and neighbors.

Between the visits, I called the Governor’s Office and the director of the Department of Water Resources (DWR) for status updates.

After this alarming incident, thousands of workers from Kiewit Corporation and its subsidiaries descended onto Oroville to make the necessary repairs to the spillway. Their hard work is greatly appreciated.

But there’s more to be done.

A year later, sediment and debris from the spillway disaster still clog the channels of the Feather River and are strewn along the riverbanks. This disregard for the environment forced Butte County, the City of Oroville and local jurisdictions to file lawsuits against the state. Penalties can be as high as $51 billion.

At the state level, I have held many meetings in my office to discuss repair and communication efforts with state officials and community members. My staff and I continue to work with Sutter Butte Flood Control Agency to get funding to shore up the levees.

Along with Congressman Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale), the Oroville Strong Coalition, Assemblyman Gallagher and I travelled to Washington, DC to lobby federal officials. Our request to have the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) delay the license renewal is pending.

This disaster has united our community. We are now stronger than ever.

On the one-year anniversary of the evacuation, community members and leaders, businesses, and public officials affected by the order gathered on the steps of the Capitol to commemorate the event and call for efforts to prevent any similar disaster in the future.

In the coming year, we will continue to encourage the Governor to sign Assembly Bill 1270 (Gallagher), a measure to require more thorough dam inspections which I shepherded in the Senate.

I will continue my efforts to push for $100 million in state funding for flood control efforts and to clean up the Feather River system.

It is also my goal to have DWR include our community in their decision making process. We want a seat at the table when DWR decides to either send more water to Los Angeles or hold back water, among the other decisions they make.  

That’s why I authored Senate Bill 955. This measure would create a citizens advisory commission for Oroville Dam and the Feather River system. This commission would allow for participation by the residents who are directly affected by the dam’s operations and strategic plans.

With the strength and support of the community, I am optimistic that we will achieve these goals for the safety of our people and the prosperity of our local economy.

 

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Elected to the State Senate in January 2013, Senator Nielsen represents the Fourth Senate District, which includes the counties of Butte, Colusa, Glenn, Placer, Sacramento, Sutter, Tehama and Yuba. To contact Senator Jim Nielsen, please call him at 916-651-4004, or via email at senator.nielsen@senate.ca.gov. Follow him on Twitter.