On Sunday night the California Department of Water Resources warned the residents of the low-lying regions close to Oroville Dam about possible flooding, and declared a mandatory evacuation. By Sunday night major local highways were crowded with Californians trying to escape from the potential danger.
Several towns in Northern California were threatened by catastrophic flooding, including Oroville itself, where the dam is situated, as well as multiple towns along the Feather River downstream from the dam.
As soon as Monday morning I went to the Oroville Dam to witness the situation with my own eyes. Here is what I saw.
I left Sacramento early in the morning. The northbound lane of the highway was deserted, the southbound lane was filled by rushing cars towing trailers loaded with people’s precious possessions. Soon I started noticing many large semi-trailers apparently carrying building materials such as rocks, stone and sand. A few times I passed cement trucks bringing concrete to fortify the water barrier. A string of yellow school buses followed me which were probably going to pick up people remaining in the threatened area.
As I approached the potential disaster area, I had a strong feeling that large forces from across America were all coming here. A few times I noticed California National Guard armored vehicles and even US Army military trucks. The increased security was necessary to assist the evacuation and to keep the empty houses safe from robberies and fires.
The Exclusion Area
Just outside Marysville, 50 miles north of Sacramento, there was a California Highway Patrol roadblock. Law enforcement officers from all over the state gathered there overnight. There were officers from Sacramento, Placer and other cities and counties. Behind the roadblock there was some sort of an exclusion area with restricted access. It was almost empty as of Monday morning. You could still see cattle trucks at some farms. The heavy machinery and traffic from support vehicles had noticeably increased.
Marrysville, which is situated about 40 miles from Sacramento, was nearly empty. None of the local businesses were open. Working traffic lights on empty streets were an eerie sight.
The nearby Yuba City was also empty. All the schools were closed; many of them have been hastily converted to evacuee shelters. Five hundred detainees in the Butte County jail have also been evacuated. This reminded me of the Chernobyl exclusion area which still exists in some parts of Belarus and Ukraine.
The flooded farms also stood silent, just like a zombie movie. All three counties that declared mandatory evacuation, Butte, Yuba and Sutter, are situated in the agricultural region of California that has been suffering from drought and forest fires for five years. Local residents know what happens when the dried-up ground gets a large amount of water in a short stretch of time. Just recently we witnessed many mudslides and sinkholes that happened because of heavy rainfall.
Next to Marysville is a small town of Oroville where stands the tallest dam in the US. It does indeed look like a ghost town – the stores locked, the businesses closed, the few remaining inhabitants packing their stuff, including furniture.
The Oroville Dam Repair
The Oroville Dam is situated just six miles away from the town. The dam took seven years to build and was completed in 1968. The dam is 770 feet tall, the highest in US. It is equipped with two spillways, the main one and the auxillary one. The auxillary spillway has never been put to use in the entire history of the dam.
Environmental groups have issued numerous warnings about the problems with the dam structure. The engineers found some erosion within the body of the dam. In 2006 the main spillway of the 50-year-old dam showed the first signs of aging. More than once, state and federal government agencies set aside billions of dollars for the Department of Water Resources. Nevertheless, the repairs have never been performed. Every time the dam was deemed fit for service and left untouched.
This went on until this month when the main spillway started crumbling during a water release.The Department of Water Resources made a decision to perform an emergency water dump which resulted in a large hole in the main chute – 300 feet long, 500 feet wide and 45 feet deep. But the dam managers were forced to continue dumping water at the rates of up to 150,000 cubic feet per second. They did not have any other choice because the water was about to spill over the edge of the dam, which would have submerged many towns of Northern California.
The emergency spillway was pressed into service for the first time. This is when the Sheriff’s Office of Butte County declared a mandatory evacuation. It was feared that the water could make a giant hole in the base of the dam and the entire lake would rush into the Sacramento Valley.
Congressman John Garamendi told Slavic Sacramento that the dam rupture would bury Oroville under 100 feet of water within minutes. The nearby Yuba City and Marysville would be flooded in a couple of hours. According to the estimates, the overloaded drain system would likely not withstand the water flow, so within 4-5 hours the flood would reach Sacramento and even Los Angeles.
At the Oroville Dam
When I reached the dam the repair work had already started. Thousands of trucks were delivering breakstone and rocks from all over the state. The materials were sorted right there in the parking lot. Several excavators and road graders were grounding up the rocks and packing them into large bags. The bags were loaded up into cargo helicopters and dumped into the cavities in the dam.
Along with the builders there were reporters from every major TV channel in the world. They were broadcasting 24/7 from the ground and from the air. At the CNN van I ran into Garamendi who assured me that “the dam is being fortified, the water level has lowered down, so Sacramento residents should not worry about the flood”. The dam is situated 70 miles from Sacramento.
Meanwhile, Monday morning Governor Jerry Brown declared emergency for the second time and was forced to ask President Donald Trump for federal support. Many have noticed that Brown, who recently attacked Trump for his conservative position on illegal immigration and the global warming, found himself in an uneasy situation.
Sacramento Sheriff Scott Jones compared him with a teenager who yells at his parents to leave him alone and then turns around and asks them for some gas money.
Indeed, the regional administration and the California Department of Water Resources have often been criticized. Brown’s administration spent about $100 million, including federal bonds, on a project that would connect South California and Northern California with a high-speed rail. That was exactly the amount that was needed for the dam reconstruction, but the Governor decided to direct the money toward the expensive railroad and the illegal immigrants. Now he will have to spend at least two times as much to restore the Oroville Dam.
Despite the political conflict between the state and the federal authorities, Donald Trump has allowed the US government to assist California’s recovery efforts.
The situation in the state has calmed down. Residents are back in their homes, although they have been warned to be ready to leave again. By the end of the week California expects more rain, so the builders, who work day and night, only have a couple of days to get the dam ready.