Residents express skepticism with DWR over Oroville project in Yuba City
December 11, 2017
Yuba-Sutter residents voiced concerns to the Department of Water Resources over hairline cracks on the reconstructed spillway, a need for more transparency moving forward, and the significant amount of sediment buildup in the Feather River brought about by the Lake Oroville incident last February and plans — or lack thereof — to clear it out.
A number of local residents stated they were skeptical of what DWR was telling the public, with one resident even saying, "It's not that I don't trust you guys, but you know…" which resulted in a chuckle from both locals and state representatives.
Thursday was the third time DWR representatives conducted a community meeting in Yuba City about the Lake Oroville spillway incident and the reconstruction efforts that have followed. It was held at the Yuba-Sutter Fairgrounds.
The issue of sediment buildup in the Feather River seemed to be the biggest concern for some local residents.
Lifelong Sutter County resident Ron Kelly, who also serves on the board of directors for the Nor-Cal Guides and Sportsmen's Association, questioned what DWR's plans were to clear the silt buildup.
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"One year did more damage than I've seen in my lifetime," Kelly said.
Kelly's colleague, James Stone, president of the association, said the Feather River stopped being a natural river system when the dam was built and became more of a conveyance system for DWR and the contractors that receive water allocations through the State Water Project.
Stone said DWR was directly at fault for the sediment buildup due to operators drastically fluctuating releases. On four different occasions since February, Stone said, DWR's releases fluctuated significantly, anywhere from 30,000 cubic feet of water per second to about 50,000 cfs. When that happens, he said, the banks collapse, ultimately resulting in a wider, shallower water channel.
"This Feather River channel is to convey water from Point A to Point B, you need to maintain your channel," Stone said. "Eventually, you are going to have to dredge the river. Hopefully it's not due to a catastrophic break or breach because you failed to do it beforehand."
Jon Ericson, chief of DWR's flood management division, said dredging is a complicated process that requires "many permits" and cooperation among stakeholders. The next step, he said, is bringing all of the different parties involved together to determine the process of obtaining the necessary permits in order to take action.
Yuba City Council member Stan Cleveland said something needs to be done soon or else sediment will continue to damage the river and its ecosystem all the way down to the confluence of the Sacramento River for the next 20 years or more.
In terms of the extreme fluctuations in releases from the reservoir, John Leahigh, chief of SWP water operations, said it's difficult to manage flows any other way. The main reason being Lake Oroville is a multipurpose reservoir, meaning in addition to providing locals with flood protection, operators must take into account different things like downstream flow requirements and meeting the needs of SWP contractors south of the delta, he said.
"Unfortunately, we cannot set a certain flow and let it go. We have to make constant adjustments," Leahigh said.
Resident Frank Coats questioned DWR on its promise to be open and transparent with the public. Considering DWR did not go public with the fact that hairline cracks were noticed in the reconstructed spillway until after it was brought up by a media outlet, he said DWR does not appear to be all that forthcoming.
Erin Mellon, assistant director of Public Affairs for DWR, said the state department was transparent with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission about the cracks when they were first noticed in August. She said FERC concurred with DWR's findings that the cracks were just a product of the concrete curing process and that they were expected all along.
Because the cracks were expected, she said DWR didn't feel it was necessary to have a press conference about them, rather they would keep public updates to areas that are of concern.
One local woman asked how the public can keep inspection reports regarding the dam from being private.
Mellon said all inspection reports are on DWR's website. That being said, the department has to balance public safety with the need of public information, so some documents will have components redacted from them.
Yuba City resident Elaine Miles asked how Yuba-Sutter residents are supposed to trust what DWR officials say considering everything that has occurred over the past several months.
Mellon said the needs of Yuba-Sutter residents and other downstream communities are a top priority both to DWR's director and to the state as a whole, which is why the community meetings were organized in the first place. Moving forward, she said, DWR hopes to keep those lines of communication open with the public and rebuild the trust that has been lost.
"We are here as part of the process to show you how important this is to us and that we want to keep communications going," Mellon said.
Jake Abbott is a reporter for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.