Daily Commentary

13 Feb 2017

Oroville Dam Emergency: 188,000 Evacuees

On late Sunday afternoon, approximately 188,000 people living downstream of Oroville dam in California were ordered to evacuate after an emergency spillway was eroding and there were fears that floodwaters would spill out of Lake Oroville.

As water levels rose higher, the emergency spillway was used on Saturday, but on Sunday officials reported that it was eroding after they noticed a hole on top of the spillway. On Sunday afternoon, there was an evacuation order saying that the spillway could fail within an hour. Residents were in panic, trying to evacuate after officials said a “hazardous situation is developing.” The evacuees were filling highways heading north and west, with major and minor arteries remaining jammed.

Lake Oroville is 150 miles northeast of San Francisco, and Oroville Dam is America’s tallest dam (770-foot-tall). The lake is one of California’s largest man-made lakes with 3.5 million acre-feet of water.

There were several shelters established to accept the evacuees. An emergency shelter in Chico, 24 miles north, was filled within a few hours. Churches and other centres were opened to evacuees, too.

At a news conference on Sunday, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said, “I didn’t have the luxury of waiting to see if all was OK. We need to get people moving quickly and to save lives in case the worst case came to fruition. This is a very dynamic situation. This is a situation that could change very, very rapidly.”

“We needed to get people moving quickly in order to protect the public and save lives if the worst case scenario did come to fruition,” Honea said.

Bill Croyle, acting director of the state’s Department of Water Resources, said “Once we have damage to a structure like that, it’s catastrophic.” We determined we could not fix the hole. You don’t just throw a little bit of rock in it.”

As the Washington Post reported, ironically, Lake Oroville’s water levels were as low as 33 percent of its capacity because of the last five years’ drought. But this year has been very rainy and waters rose to the highest levels in decades.