Oroville – With water soon set to flow down the damaged spillway at Oroville Dam, some residents are cautiously confident in repairs and haven’t checked the newly minted evacuation plans yet.
The Department of Water Resources announced Monday that spillway flows would resume “on or around March 17,” for the first time since being shut off Feb. 27.
New evacuation plans are in place in case something goes wrong and residents in Oroville, Thermalito, Gridley, Biggs and other areas along the Feather River need to evacuate again. Residents can find the zone they belong to with an interactive map at www.buttecounty.net/oem.
Officials took to the drawing board following the one-hour evacuation order for more than 180,000 residents Feb. 12, caught off guard by erosion which threatened failure of the emergency spillway weir. Lack of preparedness resulted in disarray as some citizens were stranded and highways were congested.
The Sheriff’s Office is hosting meetings this week to inform the public of the new evacuation plans, with the first one taking place Thursday in Gridley. In Oroville, several residents have not seen the new maps yet available online.
Edward Pochay, 49, said evacuation plans are not a concern for him. Pochay is the resource director for the Oroville Rescue Mission and when the orders were issued last month, he was one of the people who stuck around in the flood zone.
“People want to point fingers,” Pochay said. “The truth of the matter is I’m not one to panic.”
He said he has confidence in the work going on at the dam because of all the money that’s gone into it. Pochay also knows some of the contractors and can vouch for their competence.
“I have a lot of faith in everything that’s in place,” he said. “Do you think all that time and energy is going into anything that’s going to fail?”
Some are a little more uncertain.
Tashina Green, 28, runs a sober living facility in Oroville where she has lived for four years, she said. When the orders were issued, some of the residents she took with her were extremely emotional and anxious, though she, a self-described adrenaline junkie, was excited as they headed for refuge in Sacramento, she said.
Green said she is pretty confident the spillway will be safe to run in the next few days. She hasn’t seen the new evacuation plans yet, though their existence makes her feel better.
“I feel mostly like it’s going to be OK,” she said.
Though she’s keeping a suitcase packed, just in case.
“I’m pretty confident I can get out quick,” Green said.
Devon Carsen, 27, lives in Forbestown outside the evacuation zones, but frequents Oroville. He does construction work and said it’s been frustrating and perplexing to follow the damage and repairs at the dam.
On one hand, there’s the over-arching bureaucratic element, and then, there’s the emergency aspect — with hundreds of thousands of people at risk, Carsen said. Federal and state funds have to be spread out for various infrastructure projects, but in that balance, something like this can happen.
“What’s more important infrastructure than the tallest dam in the U.S.?” he asked.
Carsen was in Sacramento when the orders were issued and stuck it out there for a few days. He said he hasn’t seen the new evacuation orders yet.
Use of the spillway is necessary again because of rising levels at Lake Oroville, with runoff and snowmelt, are surpassing the capacity of the Hyatt Powerhouse, which was releasing outflows of 12,900 cubic-feet per second Wednesday morning, the Department of Water Resources reported.
The spillway has been shut down since Feb. 27, after the lake had been drawn down more than 50 feet from the emergency spillway lip and since, the department and contractors have worked to remove debris – originally estimated to be 1.7 cubic yards – from the bottom of the spillway. The department reported Wednesday morning that approximately 1.2 million cubic yards of material had been removed from the bottom of the spillway.
The debris pile up was restricting the department from using its additional resource for releasing flows: the Hyatt Powerhouse.
The department got the plant up and running March 3 and slowly ramped up the outflow nearing the plant’s full capacity with five operating units of about 13,000 cubic-feet per second, or cfs. This has been sufficient to manage inflows but soon the rising lake levels because of runoff and snowmelt will require use of the spillway again.
There’s a sixth unit in the power plant that would allow releases in excess of 16,000 cfs, but it’s been out of service for years.
The magnitude of the emergency was realized Feb. 7 as a gaping hole emerged in the main spillway, growing into massive erosion across and down the spillway and the sides of the structure. But with heavy rainfall and snowmelt on the way, the department had to continue to let flows down the damaged spillway.