The Oroville Dam spillway reconstruction project has just been completed as Lake Oroville approaches capacity again for the first time since that crisis in 2017. But now FEMA — which President Trump has repeatedly used to lord over California — has rejected a $306 million reimbursement request for the spillway.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is refusing to cover the $306 million bill because, it says, damage to the spillway existed prior to heavy rains that led to the emergency declaration in February 2017. As the Sacramento Bee reports, total reconstruction costs for the spillway totaled $1.1 billion — far above an initial estimate two years ago of $200 million. And FEMA has already laid out $333 million of the reconstruction, which was done in two phases so that the dam was prepared in the event of another rainy winter last year.
In any event, the completion of the spillway project couldn't have happened at a better time. Snowmelt from record-setting February snows in the Sierra — on top of any more rain and snow in the next month — promises to put the new Oroville spillway to the test as the reservoir hits capacity any week now.
The Associated Press picked up the story of FEMA's funding rejection as well, likely because of the political implications, and the fact that the 2017 spillway emergency led to a last-minute evacuation order that affected 200,000 people downstream.
When the debacle began two years ago, several cracks in the 50-year-old concrete spillway grew into a massive gash after the release of millions of gallons of water. The damaged spillway then began shooting water off to its side, eroding the hillside that doubles as an earthen dam.
To mitigate that problem, the water authority shut down the main spillway and began diverting water down a never-tested emergency spillway — which was essentially just the earthen dam on the opposite side of where the erosion was already occurring, with a concrete lip at the top. That rush of water led to major erosion at the base of the dam.
Now, as you can see in the pretty drone video below, the main concrete spillway has been replaced, and the earthen emergency spillway has also been rethought, and covered in rammed concrete that steps down the hillside. Should the emergency spillway ever have to be used again, it looks like it won't pose the safety threat that the original design posed.
By the way, if you have some time to kill, the California Department of Water Resources has a whole YouTube channel full of these drone videos, which have been documenting the entire two-year reconstruction.
CBS SF has some footage of the now completed spillway — the video above was from late October.