A small California city at the base of the tallest US dam filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the state over an emergency that forced authorities to order 188,000 people to flee last year, arguing the crisis was caused by decades of mismanagement.
The City of Oroville blames a culture of cronyism and a priority for low cost dam repairs over quality maintenance for the crisis.
Its lawsuit is the latest escalation in years of tension between water managers and Oroville city officials who believe state officials never delivered promised dam benefits and skimped on repairs to continue delivering cheap water to farmers and Southern California residents.
“This was not an act of God. This was not just a wild rainstorm. This went back 20 years of neglect,” said Joseph Cotchett, the lead attorney.
Erin Mellon, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Water Resources, did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
The February 2017 crisis began when a massive crater opened in Oroville Dam’s main spillway, a 3,000-foot (914-meter) concrete chute that releases water from Lake Oroville, California’s second-largest reservoir.
Water managers shut off releases to investigate just as a storm dumped torrents of water in the Feather River Basin, causing the lake to fill up and sending water over a concrete weir that served as an emergency spillway.
Water quickly eroded the barren hillside below, leading to fears the weir would collapse and release an uncontrolled wall of water that would swamp Oroville and other cities downstream. The crisis was averted before the weir gave way.
Oroville’s case, filed in Butte County Superior Court, seeks unspecified monetary damages to reimburse the city for the cost of the evacuation, lost revenue from sales taxes and tourism, and other expenses.
Cotchett said the city’s damages are in the millions of dollars and predicted dozens more lawsuits will follow by other local governments, business owners, farmers and others who lost money or incurred expenses.
Oroville’s lawsuit alleges that managers ignored maintenance needs and condoned shoddy dam work. It quotes one worker who said he was part of a repair crew in 2013 that was instructed to drag chains on the spillway and listen for hollow sounds that might indicate voids underneath the concrete. One person assigned to the task was legally deaf, the worker said.
The lawsuit also claimed that managers tolerated sexist and racist behavior, including a noose left in a breakroom to harass an African-American employee.
A large chunk of concrete dislodged from the spillway, which may have shown evidence of improper maintenance, was disposed of before it could be inspected by experts, the suit alleges.
An independent investigation by dam-safety experts made public earlier this month blamed ‘long-term and systemic failures’ by dam managers and regulators for the crisis.
The experts said the dam was badly built from the start in the 1960s and that its principle designer had almost no professional engineering experience.
State officials incorrectly believed both the main and emergency spillways sat on top of solid bedrock that would not erode, despite geologic reports showing otherwise, experts who said in the report.