OROVILLE, Calif. (AP) — Late in the afternoon of Feb. 12, Sheriff Kory Honea was at the emergency operations center for the tallest dam in America when he overheard someone say something that stopped him in his tracks:
“This is not good.”
Over six straight days, the operators of the Oroville Dam had been saying there was no immediate danger after water surging down the main spillway gouged a hole the size of a football field in the concrete chute. But now suddenly they realized that the dam’s emergency backup spillway – essentially an unpaved hillside – was falling apart, too, and could unleash a deadly torrent of water.
Honea reacted by ordering the immediate evacuation of nearly 200,000 people downstream.
In the end, after frantic action by the dam’s keepers, catastrophe was averted. But an Associated Press examination of state and federal documents, emails obtained under public records requests and numerous interviews reveal a sequence of questionable decisions and missteps, some of them made years ago, some of them in the middle of the crisis.
Among other things, the dam’s federal and state overseers overestimated the durability of the two spillways. And in public statements during the emergency, they failed to acknowledge – or perhaps recognize – that while they were busy dealing with one crisis, they were creating a possible new one.
During the darkest hours of the emergency, the fear was that if the hillside collapsed, “it was not whether people would die, but how many would die,” Honea recalled.
State water officials have defended their handling of the crisis at the 770-foot-high (235-meter) dam in the Sierra Nevada foothills 150 miles (241 kilometers) northeast of San Francisco, saying it was managed as effectively as possible under extraordinary circumstances, including one of the wettest winters on record.
William Croyle, acting head of the California Department of Water Resources, likened the spillway failures to a car getting a flat tire or running out of oil. “This happened. Stuff happens,” he said last month.
The crisis began Feb. 7 with the rupture in the main spillway. Dam managers responded by obtaining an uncommon exemption from the Army Corps of Engineers to bypass a rule that would have required them to release huge amounts of water from the rapidly filling dam. Water releases down the main spillway were scaled back drastically, sometimes to zero.
Engineers did this because they wanted to inspect the hole, study how much bigger it might get and think of a way to keep the spillway from crumbling further, state officials said.
All the while, the reservoir behind the dam kept rising, reaching the highest level in the structure’s history, because of one of the biggest storms in two decades.
Dam managers repeatedly assured the public there was “no imminent threat.” Just 12 hours before water began running down the hillside on Feb. 11, they told Honea in an email that the water releases, though reduced, “will still keep the lake from