Oroville mayor lashes out over dam communications
December 1, 2017
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Oroville's mayor said Thursday she knew about cracks in the replacement spillway at the troubled dam nearby and is not concerned, but heaped criticism on state water officials for failing to communicate with her town.
Linda Dahlmeier said the Department of Water Resources should have proactively communicated that cracks were expected but has instead created a "firestorm" in a community that was rattled by sudden evacuation orders last February. Nearly 200,000 people were forced to flee when engineers feared that damaged spillways at Oroville Dam would unleash an uncontrolled wall of water that would inundate her town and others downstream. The crisis was averted.
The existence of small cracks in the replacement spillway was revealed this week after the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission posted communications about them online. Officials downplayed concerns about them Thursday in a conference call with reporters, saying hairline cracks are normal and expected in reinforced concrete because it shrinks as it cures.
Dahlmeier said that could've been communicated more effectively before the letter went public.
"Many of us that have been up there have seen those hairline fractures and it's no big deal because it was explained to us one at a time," Dahlmeier told The Associated Press.
Many residents of Oroville don't trust what they're hearing from the Department of Water Resources, she said, and officials in the agency's Sacramento headquarters have failed to address the concerns of people living in the shadow of the nation's tallest dam. Crews are nearly finished preparing the main spillway for the rainy winter season and will spend the coming months working on the adjacent emergency spillway.
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State officials should put in the effort to visit Rotary Clubs and schools to meet people in small groups and answer their questions honestly, she said.
"I don't want to hear it from Sacramento anymore," Dahlmeier said. "I want to hear it wordsmithed from somebody that lives here and knows how to speak to my community and my people."
Two community meetings are planned next week in Oroville and Yuba City. Erin Mellon, a spokeswoman for the department, said officials also have monthly calls with stakeholders and elected officials and send emails to community members every time they issue a press release.
"There is only so much we can simplify and still provide detailed descriptions and answers that are accurate," Mellon said.
Jeff Petersen, project director for Kiewit Construction, which has the contract to rebuild the spillways at an estimated cost of $500 million, said the cracks don't affect the structural integrity of the spillway. Adjusting the concrete mixture could reduce the number of cracks, Petersen said, but experts need to be careful not to reduce the concrete's strength.
Engineers believe the number of cracks is "in the hundreds," with the biggest about the width of a human finger nail and the average about half that thickness, said Jeanne Cuttel, incident commander for the Department of Water Resources.
Federal regulators told state officials that they share the state's conclusion that "the current condition of the hairline cracking does not warrant repair at this time."