Dam managers made missteps in handling crisis

An aerial view shows water rushing out of the Oroville Dam's main spillway on Feb. 21 2017

An aerial view shows water rushing out of the Oroville Dam's main spillway on Feb. 21 2017

In February, authorities ordered the evacuation of 188,000 people downstream after surging releases of water tore away big chunks of the main spillway and then the dam's second, emergency spillway.

In 2014, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission affirmed the safety of both spillways and said there was no point in studying or discussing whether the possibility of either could fail, state officials told AP. The crisis led the evacuation of almost 200,000 homes before catastrophe was averted.

The crisis began on February 7 following a massive storm which flooded the reservoir at the dam.

Then, with the lake behind the dam swelling from rain and runoff, water began running down a never-before-used backup spillway.

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The AP has found the dam received an uncommon exemption from federal rules requiring it to release huge amounts of water.

The Los Angeles Times reports state officials say water could continue pouring down the spillway for up to two weeks.

As early as 2005, however, Friends of the River and other environmental groups had argued the earthen spillway needed to be reinforced with concrete.

The Department of Water Resources says its engineers estimate for the work was actually $231,715,373.

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The state said inflows to the lake are running at 28,224 cubic feet per second while outflows down the spillway are running at 35,000 cubic feet per second.

Construction work on the spillway fix project at Lake Oroville is expected to start soon as the Department of Water Resources has chosen a contractor.

Rick Poeppelman, chief of the Army Corps' engineering division for the region, said his agency and the state water managers made the best decisions they could. The group that includes six House members from California said a changing climate raises risks for aging dams around the U.S.

They also want more communication and transparency from the government on the work.

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