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California Gov. Brown defends state's handling of Oroville Dam crisis, welcomes scrutiny

California Gov. Jerry Brown defended the state's handling of the Oroville Dam crisis as he waited to hear from the president on his request for direct federal assistance for the emergency.

Also, Brown welcomed scrutiny after revelations in recent days that there had been warnings more than a decade ago about the troubled emergency spillway.

"There are lots of reports, so we have to depend on the professionals and the engineers," Brown said late Monday in remarks at a press conference after visiting the State Operations Center outside Sacramento. "They tell us what we need, and then we do it. But I welcome more scrutiny."

Added Brown, "Every time you have one of these disasters, people perk up and start looking at analogous situations and things you might not have paid as much attention to."

As a result of the potential for flash flooding from the rapidly eroding emergency spillway, nearly 200,000 residents were forced Sunday to evacuate from their homes. Tuesday marked the third day the mandatory order remained in effect.

A meeting briefing is scheduled for Tuesday 1 p.m. local time in Oroville. Engineers are currently meeting and there is a possibility authorities could lift the mandatory evacuation.

Prior warnings

"Prior warnings to make safety improvements to the dam's structures may well have averted this crisis if they had been heeded," said Adrienne Alvord, Western states director of the Union of Concerned Scientists, in a statement.

Alvord, an expert on water policy, asserted that the critical problems to the 48-year-old dam's spillways spoke to the need for "stronger design criteria."

"Due to the magnitude of this event and the potential for additional issues, we are requiring California Department of Water Resources (DWR) to initiate immediate design of emergency repair to minimize further degradation of both the emergency spillway and the service spillway," the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission stated Monday in a letter to DWR's acting director, William Croyle.

FERC issued the original power license for the Oroville facilities in the late 1950s but the license expired Jan. 31, 2007; relicensing proceedings are still pending.

In 2005, three environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, "moved to intervene in the Oroville licensing proceeding," according to documents released by the state. It followed emergency spillway safety questions.

DWR officials this week denied that the state had ignored earlier concerns about the Oroville Dam's emergency spillway or had been lax in inspections there.

Brown's request to President Donald Trump for a federal emergency declaration to assist in the potential failure of the Oroville Dam emergency spillway is currently under review, according to a spokesperson for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The request was made through FEMA's regional office in Oakland.

The governor's letter stated that the Oroville Dam emergency is "of such severity and magnitude that continued effective response is beyond the capabilities of the state and affected local governments and supplemental federal assistance is necessary to save lives and to protect property, public health and safety, and to lessen the effects of this serious situation."

FEMA is already active on the Oroville crisis with the agency Monday announcing its Oakland regional response center has moved to 24-hour operations and is "monitoring impacts of the severe weather in California" and coordinating support with the state.

According to FEMA, the new storm system reaching Northern California this week "may cause excessive runoff within the river basins and may pose additional stress on the Oroville Dam spillway situation."

If there were an uncontrolled discharge of waters from the dam, there could be a 30-foot wall of water down to the Feather River and tributaries that could result in flooding to the city of Oroville and other communities in the eastern Sacramento Valley.

Oroville Dam
Elijah Nouvelage | Getty Images
Oroville Dam

Workers scrambled late Monday to make repairs at the battered emergency spillway — essentially a natural hillside — to prevent further erosion.

Dump trucks were used to carry boulders to the dam's damaged backup spillway and helicopters also dropped rocks. Also, crews planned to use mortar for added support to the structure.

More rain expected Wednesday

The primary spillway at the nation's tallest earthen dam also has significant erosion to its concrete liner but is still being used for outflows to relieve the swollen dam of water ahead of several major storm systems. The first storm is forecast to bring significant precipitation to the Oroville area as early as Wednesday night and the rainy weather is expected to last through next week.

Alvord also was critical of state water agencies for not specifically including extreme weather events in water project proposals, such as the state's water bond program. In 2014, California voters passed a $7.5 billion water bond measure.

"The Oroville Dam crisis is dramatic evidence that California must plan for more extreme weather events when designing and building water infrastructure projects," said Alvord.

Brown said it isn't just dams or spillways that can present risks but bridges, too.

"The earthquake shook the Bay Bridge and then, we the state, and all the different governors had to put up a new bridge. So stuff happens and we respond. This is part of the ordinary process."

The governor added: "We're in a very complex society where things can go wrong, and when they do they ripple out and effect hundreds of thousands and in some cases millions of people."

"We'll get a lot of eyes on the problem now that we have a problem," said Brown. "The problem is big and we're responding."

(UPDATE: This story was updated to reflect a new time for the local press conference.)