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New Bullards Bar Dam second spillway in Yuba County proposed (VIDEO)

Sam Corey
Staff Writer
A Photoshopped image of what the new second spillway at the New Bullards Bar Dam would look like.
Yuba Water Agency

California endures its fair share of deadly weather conditions, but what happened in 1997 was unlike much the state had seen before.

As a direct result, plans are in the works to add a second spillway to New Bullards Bar Dam.


On New Years Day, storms from Hawaii hit Northern California, striking panic in residents across the area. According to accounts by the San Francisco Chronicle, rain from the storm raised “temperatures above 37 degrees at 10,000 feet.” A hundred thousand Central Valley residents fled the area; over 50,000 evacuated their homes in Marysville and Yuba City; a broken levee caused officials to advocate the evacuation of 22,000 more residents in and near Olivehurst.

A state of emergency was declared for 25 northern counties by Gov. Pete Wilson, after he took a helicopter above the flooded areas to determine the damage.

Final estimates of the devastation came to about $1.6 billion, with 20,000 homes and 1,500 business destroyed. It was estimated eight people died.

Since then, officials have been working to prevent such destruction. This has been a particular challenge with the ongoing threat of climate change, and fear as we get more precipitation in the form of rain rather than snow. The fear being the result will encourage history to repeat itself in the form of floods.

Looking forward

After the 1997 floods, a study was conducted to determine the best way to avoid similar chaos, according to Yuba Water Agency Communications Manager Dede Cordell. The answer has come in the form of renovations to the New Bullards Bar Dam, which was originally created in 1970, and towers 650 feet above the North Yuba River.

Today, as a result of the study and collaboration with consulting firm, GEI Consultants Inc., the Yuba Water Agency has committed to building a $160 million second spillway at the New Bullards Bar Dam.

The construction will allow the removal of water more quickly in preparation for an oncoming storm by putting less strain on levees. That would lower the flood risk for Marysville, Yuba City, Linda, Olivehurst and Plumas Lake. The reservoir is set to release 65,000 cubic feet of water per second out of the new spillway, affecting some 100,000 residents.

While the agency has aimed to lead the charge on flood control, it has not done so alone, according to Curt Aikens and Willie Whittlesey, the General Manager and Project Manager for the Yuba Water Agency. Since 1997, the Yuba Water Agency has applied for permits through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, partnered with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, briefed the Division of Safety of Dams and collaborated with the National Weather Service.

Engineers of all sorts

Although not quite as difficult as constructing a dam, building a second spillway in the New Bullards Bar Dam is no easy task, according to Whittlesey. First, a team of civil engineers must begin geological studies to ensure the dam’s rock can successfully hold the tunnel. The group then has to decide the proper hydraulics around the slope and size of the tunnel.

What’s more, the water agency has mechanical and electrical engineers working to build gates that regulate the flow of water, thereby preventing any catastrophic event whereby surrounding roads become flooded.

Right now, the agency has to map all this out on architectural designs and gain numerous permits from federal, state and local officials in order to break ground in 2021, with the hope of completing the project in 2025.

The small aspects of the ongoing project are numerous, but the overall goal has remained consistent: Prevent peak flooding, like that seen 24 years ago.

“This spillway is designed so it can handle the maximum flood on record, which is 1997, all by itself,” said Aikens. “So it gives us additional flood protection, additional dam safety and redundancy. It’s a win-win project all around.”

Contact Sam Corey at 530-477-4219 or at scorey@theunion.com.

Note: This story was updated to accurately reflect the state of the $160 million proposal.

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