For nearly 50 years, the Oroville Dam has provided a water lifeline to residents across the state of California. But for the community in its shadow, the dam has been a source of contention and legal battles.
Weeks of winter storms triggered the near collapse of two of the dam's spillways this past week and temporary evacuation of nearly 190,000 residents.
The crisis also brought to the surface lingering and looming problems faced by the local community.
Butte County and green groups have fought the relicensing of the Oroville Dam for more than a decade. They argue federal regulators and the courts should require the state to better fortify the emergency spillway, to reimburse the county for dam-related costs, and to more carefully examine the effects of climate change on the dam.
Oroville’s reservoir plays a vital role in capturing water from California’s rainy, mountainous north and distributing it to agricultural lands, industrial tracts, and homes from the Bay Area to Southern California. But the community downstream says the benefits were not returned to Butte County.
In 2005, Butte County filed a motion with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which licenses the dam, to intervene in the state’s application to grant a new 50-year license.
“For many years the costs to provide services to the project have outweighed the tourism benefits,” the county argued at the time. The dam's recreation facilities had become "a magnet for crime, vandalism, trash dumping" that the county regularly had to police and cleanup.
The nation's tallest dam created a job boom for the region during its construction in the 1960s. But once the project was completed, unemployment spiked and new homes were abandoned.
In the decades since, Butte County argued it lost $267 million in potential taxes on the now-submerged land under reservoir. The county estimated it spends $4.8 million annually on expenses related to the dam. The state's Department of Water Resources, which operates the dam, calculated the county's losses were less, but still reached over $500,000 annually, according to a 2007 environmental study.
Conservation groups Friends of the River and the Sierra Club also raised issues, requesting that the dam's relicensing be contingent on stronger fortification of the emergency spillway -- which nearly failed this week.
“We were told repeatedly that the spillways and the dam were all just fine,” said Friends of the River’s Executive Director Eric Wesselman. “The events unfolding at Oroville should be a wake-up call that there are thousands of unsafe dams and levees in the country."
FERC consultants dismissed concerns about the emergency spillway in a 2006 memo. But on Monday, the federal agency requested an independent "forensic analysis to determine both the cause of the spillway failure and whether it could occur again.”
FERC spokeswoman Celeste Miller would not say how the damaged spillways impacted the state's application to relicense the dam.
In 2008, Butte County also sued the state’s Department of Water Resources, accusing it of avoiding a rigorous assessment of the effects of climate change on the dam.
The lawsuit came three years after Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger warned that climate change threatened to “greatly reduce the Sierra snowpack, one of the state’s primary sources of water.”
The state needs to consider the wild swings in climate conditions, not just the effects of drought, when re-evaluating the safety of dams, said Butte County Counsel Bruce Alpert.
"I don’t know what's coming in the future, but they haven’t studied it," Alpert said.
The state says it completed a climate analysis over a decade ago. In 2012, a judge ruled against Butte County, writing that "current climate change science does not allow for project-specific forecasting," and the state's environmental study "should not be based on speculation."
The county appealed. The case is now before California 3rd District Court of Appeals.
(This story corrects governor's name in paragraph 15 to Arnold Schwarzenegger from Jerry Brown, corrects spelling error in paragraph 16 and paragraph 17.)
(Reporting by Robin Respaut in San Francisco; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)