Repairs to Oroville dam continue as residents await next major storm

Thousands of residents have returned home since the evacuation order was lifted on Tuesday, while others are waiting to see how the dam handles this week's storms before making the journey.

Michael Macor/San Francisco Chronicle/AP
Trucks line the Oroville Dam roadway as the effort to stabilize the emergency spillway continues Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017, in Oroville, Calif. Officials say the decision to lift the evacuation order for nearly 200,000 people living below a damaged dam in California has taken into account updated weather forecasts. A storm later this week is expected to be colder, with less rain.

Efforts to shore up Oroville dam spillways have helped to bring the water level down, officials say. That means the almost 200,000 residents evacuated on Sunday can head home – but many aren’t making plans to do so yet.

On Tuesday, evacuation orders were lifted for residents who live below the country’s tallest dam. But officials warned that residents could be asked to evacuate again later in the week, as a small series of storms expected to start Wednesday could test the effectiveness of repair efforts. 

“There is the prospect that we could issue another evacuation order if the situation changes and the risk increases,” Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said Tuesday.

Some residents are choosing to make the journey home, despite evacuation traffic that extended a one-hour drive into a six-hour journey on Sunday and could make it difficult to leave Butte County again. Others are staying put – at least for now.

“I’m not trying to risk traffic, being stuck in floods. I’m safe where I’m at,” Donald Azevedo, a Butte County resident staying at an emergency shelter, told the Associated Press. Along with more than 30 relatives, he planned to return home after the storms expected to hit this week.

The Lake Oroville reservoir captures water in northern California, distributing it to agriculture, industry, and homes across the state. Following recent precipitation events, which had filled the lake almost to bursting, the main spillway was being used to let water run off over the weekend, when a growing hole in the concrete made it almost unusable.

That came as a shock to residents, who had been assured that the dam was working well. Even more surprising was the order to evacuate Sunday, when the dam’s unpaved emergency spillway looked ready to give way. Within 40 hours of being pressed into service, the rarely used emergency spillway was eroding rapidly.

“We were told repeatedly that the spillways and the dam were all fine,” said Eric Wesselman, executive director of advocacy organization Friends of the River, according to Reuters. “The events unfolding at Oroville should be a wake-up call that there are thousands of unsafe dams and levees in the country.”

An inquiry is already underway, The Christian Science Monitor reported on Tuesday, while repairs will begin in earnest in the spring. Fixing the main spillway could cost as much as $200 million, said Bill Croyle, acting director of the state Department of Water Resources, AP reported.

But first, the spillways have to handle inflows from a series of upcoming storms. And when this winter’s record snowfall starts to melt, that water, too, will flow into the Oroville dam.

Officials are optimistic that temporary repair efforts will help keep the spillways usable. Construction crews are shoring up the emergency spillway, dumping 1,200 tons of rocks and other material on it every hour, and concrete slurry is being used to help keep the rocks in place, the Los Angeles Times reported. California will get some assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Gov. Jerry Brown announced late Tuesday.

The evacuees who are now returning home will remain attuned to the situation, they say.

“We’re all coming back [to] pack and be ready this time,” Rod Remocal, who lives west of the Oroville dam, told AP. “This time we’re going to be on call like they said.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.