Dam safety bill hits milestone on anniversary of Oroville evacuation | TheUnion.com

Dam safety bill hits milestone on anniversary of Oroville evacuation

Jake Abbott
Special to The Union

Exactly one year after more than 180,000 residents from Butte, Sutter and Yuba counties were forced to evacuate due to a deteriorating spillway at Lake Oroville, a bill focused on improving the state's dam safety protocol was passed by the Legislature.

The state Assembly passed the bill — authored by Assemblyman James Gallagher — early Monday afternoon, just before a press conference was held by North State officials to reiterate the need for better dam safety throughout the state.

"We are here today to again state our resolve to never again (let this happen) and to celebrate an important first step in the passage of AB 1270, which will immensely improve our dam safety inspections," Gallagher said.

Many of those in attendance not wearing suits were donning shirts that read "We Give a Dam." Some were wearing both.

"We give a damn, and by the time we are done the entire state will give a damn," Gallagher said.

Gallagher was accompanied by state Sen. Jim Nielsen — a co-author of the bill — Yuba City Vice Mayor Shon Harris, and officials from Butte County and the Oroville Chamber of Commerce.

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Each of the speakers during the press conference highlighted the experience their constituents went through last February and the "paralyzing fear" that came along with evacuating.

"For 50 years, government let us and that dam down by not paying sufficient attention, testing, and monitoring for the safety of the dam and the problems that occurred therein," Nielsen said. "That has been amply confirmed by the studies by the Forensic Team and others."

Now that the bill passed both the state Senate and Assembly, it will be sent to Gov. Jerry Brown's desk for approval.

If the dam safety bill is signed into law, it would require the Department of Water Resources to inspect high hazard dams annually, set standards for inspections, require periodic review of original design and construction records, require consultation with independent experts and would require inspection reports to be made public.

Current law requires DWR — the state entity responsible for maintaining and operating Lake Oroville, as well as more than 1,000 other dams part of the dam safety program — to perform dam inspections from time to time.

"Time to time inspections are simply not enough," Harris said.

"This legislation will strengthen inspections, provide transparency and help protect those of us living downstream of dams in California. I applaud the Legislature for taking this action and encourage the governor to sign this very critical piece of legislation."

While much of the gathering revolved around celebrating the bill reaching an important milestone, Gallagher and others pushed the fact that there is much more still needed.

Gallagher said the Feather River needs to be cleared of the debris unleashed from last February's spillway crisis; the state's aging levees need to be improved; and critical infrastructure needs to be updated. All in all, he said there needed to be a culture change within the state to make sure what happened last year never happens again.

"There is a whole lot more work that needs to be done. Certainly, we've taken a good step forward with this legislation passing today, but we want real substantive change, and we don't want to be back here again," Gallagher said.

Jake Abbott writes for the Marysville Appeal Democrat. He can be reached at jabbott@appealdemocrat.com.