Northern California residents living in the shadow of the nation's tallest dam vented decades of frustration with state water managers Wednesday, telling officials they have no credibility when they say hairline cracks in a newly rebuilt spillway are nothing to worry about.
In February, nearly 200,000 people had to evacuate because of catastrophic damage to the spillways at Oroville Dam. The crisis was averted, but concern lingers as the rainy winter season begins and officials prepare the partially rebuilt spillway for potential use.
California Department of Water Resources officials got an earful from residents wanting to know about the safety of the dam in a town-hall meeting.
The community meeting is the first since federal officials made public their concerns about a series of hairline cracks in freshly laid concrete on the new spillway. State officials said cracking is normal and federal regulators agreed that no immediate repairs are necessary, but not everyone is convinced.
"We heard that in 2009 when we saw DWR fixing cracks on the spillway, that it was completely normal, that it was no concern," said Genoa Widener of Oroville. "And then we were told to run for our lives. So you telling us that it's normal is not enough."
The trouble at Oroville Dam began in early February, when a massive crater opened up in the main spillway, a concrete chute that releases water from Lake Oroville, California's second-largest reservoir. Crews shut down the spillway for inspection just as a major storm dumped a torrent of rain in the Feather River basin. With the main spillway damaged and unused, the lake quickly filled to capacity and water began flowing over a concrete weir that serves as an emergency spillway. It had never before been used.
The water eroded the barren hillside beneath the concrete, leading to fears the weir would collapse and release a wall of water that would swamp communities and destroy levies for miles downstream.
State officials say the hundreds of small cracks in new concrete are different from the cracks that experts believe may have allowed water to seep beneath the original concrete spillway, contributing to erosion that caused the spillway to buckle.
The state water agency had a complicated relationship with Oroville for decades before the town was forced to evacuate. Many here say the agency failed to live up to promises of grand recreational and tourism amenities when they dammed the Feather River to create Lake Oroville. Instead, they say, they endure the danger so the state can store and deliver water for parched Southern California and generate power with hydroelectric turbines.
"You took our water, you took our power, you took our land and we got nothing," said Debbie Norris of Oroville.
State officials have closed a road on top of the dam during construction and have deferred a decision about whether it will ever be re-opened due to safety concerns.
Several residents said the road closure has cut off access to beloved recreational amenities.
"The way of life I wanted, which is why I moved to Oroville, has been taken away from me," Gail Hastain told The Associated Press. "DWR has taken advantage of this town."
Hastain said she's lost access to a bike path she loved to use and a walking trail that her mother, who uses a wheelchair, was able to use.
Construction crews are racing to rebuild the main spillway and fortify the barren hillside in case the emergency spillway is ever used again — a project estimated to cost about $500 million. About a third of the spillway has been fully rebuilt, while the rest has been fortified for the winter with plans to finish next year.
Officials drained Lake Oroville about 80 feet (24 meters) below its typical level for the start of winter, providing extra storage for incoming water. On Wednesday, the lake was 200 feet (61 meters) shy of its maximum capacity.
Another meeting is planned Thursday in Yuba City, a larger community downstream from Oroville which was also evacuated in February.