You have permission to edit this article.

Oroville Dam spillway crisis: One year later

  • Updated
  • Comments
  • 12 min to read

Following a series of area evacuations due to the Oroville Dam spillway situation, traffic on Highway 99 near Queens Avenue is at a standstill on Sunday, February 12, 2017 in Yuba City.

This time last year looked much, much different for Yuba-Sutter residents.

There was rain and rising water – lots of it.

After being told for days that all was well at Oroville Dam, an unexpected emergency alert called for evacuations, saying a “wall of water” was impending.  The date was Feb. 12, 2017. 

Panic set in and 188,000 people jammed the roadways for hours, trying to reach family, friends, even a hotel, with no idea whether they would have a home to return to. 

The Oroville Dam spillway crisis was one that has made headlines all over the country for the sheer volume of evacuees, and apparent oversights by the Department of Water Resources. 

One year later, Yuba-Sutter officials and residents sound off on the historic event that has shaped conversation and policy, with hopes of preventing a potential catastrophe in the future.

Steve Durfor, Yuba County sheriff

Steve Durfor joined the Yuba County Sheriff’s Department in 1987, shortly after the 1986 flood ravaged the area. But he was here in 1997, when another flood tore throughout the county.

He was front and center as one of many officials who facilitated evacuations last year during the Oroville Dam spillway crisis. 

“I had just gotten home from being out of town and not long after that, I got a call from Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea, who I’ve been friends with for a long time, but it struck me as odd that he was calling.”

Durfor said Honea told him things had taken a turn for the worse with the Oroville Dam emergency spillway.

“He indicated to me that things had become dire and there was an imminent failure of the Oroville Dam emergency spillway,” Durfor said. “He told me, ‘I’m evacuating everything below the dam.’”

Durfor’s response, “I’m on it.”

He said all sheriff’s deputies went on 12-hour shifts and a massive effort to evacuate people ensued. 

“What happened on Feb. 12 related to the spillway was an unprecedented event in terms of the imminent threat to life and property, which is very different from what we’re accustomed to in the Yuba-Sutter area,” Durfor said. “Due to the rain and weather, we were already at monitoring stage before the spillway incident – slow rises we can predict but this was different.”

Durfor knew, if the spillway failed, it would be several hours before the wall of water arrived in Yuba-Sutter, but with the Feather River already high, things were more serious.

“There was never an inundation map that had been created in case the emergency spillway failed,” Durfor said. “What had been created was an inundation map if the main spillway failed, so I went with what I knew, and a rapid massive evacuation was the best way to saves lives.”

Carol Pickard, director, The Courtyard Assisted Living in Yuba City

“It is interesting as some of the residents here start to reflect on last year’s events, because it is such a different year. It is sunny and warm outside, which was the complete opposite of last year. Looking back on it, the residents here remembered from the last time this area flooded so their worries started well before the evacuation took place. But this generation living here is so strong. They went through World War II, Korea and Vietnam and they didn’t panic when it was time to evacuate. Looking back on it, we got through that event together and it turned out to be the best team building experience of my career. It is like this event bonded us together. So in the midst of all this panic, looking back there were aspects that made it a very heartwarming experience.”

Chuck Smith, Sutter County public information officer

“Oroville Dam is now everyone’s case study. Engineers and dam operators and emergency managers from across the country and from other countries have taken an interest in the structure and management of the dam, and the impact a potential dam failure has on downstream communities. Potential loss of the emergency spillway at the country’s tallest dam led to the single largest evacuation in United States history for other than a hurricane. In Sutter County, we’re adopting lessons learned and working to strengthen our own emergency response. There are nine high hazard potential dams on rivers outside of Sutter County that could cause damage, injury, or death in Sutter County if they failed. We must better understand the threat and be better prepared to respond.” 

Brad Foster, walnut and prune farmer along the Feather River

“We lost farmland when DWR couldn’t control the spillway. The majority of my damage came from the releases from the dam; we lost about 2  cres. I also lost irrigation pumps to the river. It was really discouraging.”

The damage came from the dam, yet DWR says it’s not responsible. Their lack of diligence and keeping up with maintenance is why we are where we are. I filed a claim with the state and they said, ‘it’s too complicated you’ll have to sue us.’”

I know there’s going to be a big lawsuit over it – there’s other farmers that lost a lot of trees because they could not control their releases – but I’m not going to get involved. It’ll take so long I’d be dealing with it through my retirement. I just want to get things back to normal and keep doing what I love.”

Chris Pedigo, Marysville vice mayor

Pedigo said the abrupt notice given to city and county officials that the emergency spillway might fail still dominates his thoughts a year later. 

“It was such a quick turn around to get people evacuated,” Pedigo said. “(The Department of Water Resources) could have done a better job communicating there might be a problem. They were sending mixed messages.” 

He said he is pleased with the transparency DWR has shown during the past year, keeping residents informed about each stage of the reconstruction process. 

“People need to know that DWR is completely transparent in everything they do,” Pedigo said. “Right now, there is still a lot of shaken faith in DWR.”

He said he hopes their transparency and maintenance procedures following the crisis set a new standard for other dam operators and water agencies. 

“They can show off to the world that ‘this is what we’re doing.’ That way they can become a model of transparency and maintenance in the world,” he said. “Then I can look my constituents in the eyes and say ‘look, they’ve done a good job.’”

Jeff Palmer, owner, Stohlman’s Union Station in downtown Gridley

“My business was affected by the evacuation, as was everybody else’s in town. It was about a week of lost revenue and a lot of undue stress and headaches because of mismanagement at the state level. 

I’ve been here for 40 years and I have a lot of little old lady customers who spent two to three days in a parking lot. Many of these people were afraid of their houses getting broke into or whether their homes would even be there afterwards. Everybody from Jerry Brown on down are all overpaid and should have been held accountable for this, but they were not. I don’t see anything getting better. It’s an ongoing issue with one party controlling two-thirds of the Legislature, they can misspend taxpayer’s dollars and continue to run dysfunctional departments.”

Andy Vasquez, Yuba County supervisor

Vasquez said the incident shed some light on improvements that can be made to the evacuations protocol but overall, things went pretty well.

“Considering how large the event was and the potential for devastation, we came out pretty good,” Vasquez said. “I didn’t personally evacuate because I have faith in the $450 million levees.” 

He said planning between the Office of Emergency Services and Yuba County ahead of the evacuation helped.

“Robert Bendorf (county administrator) and Scott Bryan (emergency operations manager) are former deputies, so they’re used to dealing with crisis situations and that helped a lot.” Vasquez said. “Our staff did a great job. As far as I’m concerned, they did their jobs effectively.”

Amid the crisis, FEMA and OES established a temporary command center in Nevada County since the Yuba County Government Center was in the evacuation zone.

“A lot what happened with the Oroville incident helped them learn about how to deal with the Cascade Fire,” Vasquez said. “Bullards Bar is the one that’s critical for us. Unlike DWR, we’re able to maintain our own dam properly, and that makes Yuba County a safe place to live.”

Brian Ashburn, Robert M. Galligan & Associates

Before, during and after the evacuations, more than 300 people signed up for flood insurance with Brian Ashburn, Robert M. Galligan & Associates, Inc. 

“We were also evacuating but were able to access the internet away from the office to issue policies for clients with our flood insurance company,” said president Brian Ashburn. “I was living in my trailer on a friend’s property in Penryn.”

Ashburn said it’s crucial for people to keep in mind there’s a 30-day waiting period when paying for a policy before it goes into effect.

“These are all federally run flood policies so the rules are the same for my company as they are for any other company,” Ashburn said. “It’s The National Flood Insurance Program, which covers up to  $250,000 home and $100,000 on contents. People can get excess flood insurance on the private market.”

Ashburn did a quick study of about five to six homes in his neighborhood and said only two of those homes have flood insurance.

“We also did a study of our exiting clients who have homeowner’s insurance policies and found there’s a high percentage of people in the valley that don’t have flood insurance,” Ashburn. “I recommend people make the investment and purchase flood insurance.”

Erin Mellon, assistant director, Department of Water Resources, Public Affairs

“The residents of Oroville and other downstream communities who were evacuated last February had a terrifying experience, and DWR is working hard to make sure that something like that never happens again. California’s dam safety future requires a long-term commitment to curating best available science, sufficient investment, and a willingness to do things differently. DWR started on this path last February and we will continue throughout the future. In terms of personal reflection, my primary thought is that I am proud to work with hundreds of smart, dedicated DWR employees who are managing the Lake Oroville recovery effort and will lead California into a stronger dam safety program in the future. I’m also optimistic about the future. We’ve built a lot of positive relationships with community members and stakeholders who depend on DWR to get information, and we’re collaborating on important issues so that we can all move forward.”

Gino Patrizio, CEO of Rideout Health

The entire staff – physicians, nurses, clinical and support staff – of Regional Medical Center in Marysville was ready to work with the evacuation, Patrizio said.

Because the majority of the new facility is on higher levels, the staff and patients were able to “shelter in place,” he said.

Rideout Health has an established emergency preparedness plan, so, “We’re always ready to go,” Patrizio said. “It’s standard in the hospital industry to be prepared for emergencies of all sorts.”

One thing different with this evacuation was having to evacuate all three senior living centers, The Courtyard, the Fountains and The Gardens, at the same time.

“We have a plan to identify and muster resources, we’ve just never had to actually evacuate them all at the same time,” he said, “so coordinating appropriate locations for all 200 residents was incredibly challenging. We have a plan that is more specific to evacuation now.”

Though there was no flood, the financial impact on most organizations and businesses in the community was devastating, he said. “As community leaders we have a responsibility to do everything that we can to ensure something like this doesn’t happen again.”

James Stone, Nor-Cal Guides & Sportsmen’s Association

As a fishing and hunting guide, James Stone said the Feather River high-water events related to the spillway crisis have been devastating to the livelihood of guides and fishermen in general.

“Make no mistake, the safety of 200,000 people is of paramount concern, but the rivers and reservoirs are some of Sutter County’s largest recreational resources,” Stone said. “This is effecting not only the rivers but the economic impact is being felt at the hotels, restaurants, gas station and other businesses all over the area.”

Stone, who is the president of the Nor-Cal Guides & Sportsmen’s Association and owns Elite Sportsmen Guide Service, said an upcoming economic impact report will help determine the extent of the problem.

“We were not able to guide until duck hunting season,” Stone said. “There’s nowhere you can launch any boat on the Feather River without hitting a sand bar.”

He said a study completed in 2014 concluded that millions of tons of sediment needed to be removed from the water – but nothing has been done.

Stone said Proposition 68, which is on the June 5 ballot, would issue $4 billion in bonds for parks, environmental protection and water infrastructure.

“All the farmers that lost acres along the river are also having to deal with that as well,” he said.

Steve Kroeger, Yuba City city manager

“What sticks in my mind the most is the remarkably quick response of city staff when we were notified that Sunday afternoon of the impending issues with the emergency spillway. Within short order, the Executive Team met at the emergency operations center and began to put response plans in place. It’s times like those when you appreciate the robustness and forward thinking nature of our public safety staff.”

Since that time, I have been impressed with the rapid progress made on the spillway repairs. Locally, I have been pleased with the ongoing reflections of city staff regarding what improvements we can make to the emergency planning process in order to better serve the community.”

For the future, I look forward to working cooperatively with our regional partners to determine the best means for communicating information to the public in times of emergency. We were all amazed at the misinformation that was floating around a year ago and we are committed to ensuring an improvement in the flow of information in the future.”

Bob Bigham, co-owner of Yuba City Florist

Bigham evacuated from Yuba City on Feb. 12 but returned a day later along with co-owner Don Covey and others to fill in flower orders made for Valentine’s Day.

The product order was placed six weeks before the holiday and filled the florist’s coolers.

Not many people were home to receive their flowers, but the business tried to contact the customers to set up another delivery date.

“We lost thousands of roses and were down about 40 percent,” Bigham said. “We had to repurchase all the product” for people who did want their orders later.

“I did not realize how critical the situation was,” he said about his early return to Yuba City. Owner of the business since 1976, this was the third time he had been through an evacuation.

They returned as soon as they could see it was somewhat safe to come in, he said, not knowing if the evacuation was being especially cautious. “We didn’t realize the severity of it. Would I do it again? No.”

Michael Inamine, Sutter Butte Flood Control Agency executive director

“An unpleasant reality is that expedited federal permission to fix the Yuba City levee would not have happened without the Oroville incident – we cannot rely on emergencies to get work done. Once again, we are reminded that old infrastructure falls apart without ongoing, thoughtful investment.

There has been some positive news: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has taken steps to reduce unnecessary and potentially dangerous regulatory delays of critical levee work; Congress has taken an interest in the SBFCA experience, among the issues are redundant and/or unnecessary regulatory burdens that delay or even defeat public safety measures; while recently repaired levees performed well, our significant investment could be easily squandered if levees are not maintained in the long-term.”

Russ Brown, Yuba County public information officer

“That Sunday morning of February 12, I recall sending out a social media message about how the situation looked, five days after the spillway first began to crumble. The sun was out, the river levels were beginning to drop and we were being told Lake Oroville’s emergency spillway was “operating as designed.” I even attended an update meeting at DWR that same morning and heard a lot of the same information.

I think that is what made the late afternoon alert so jarring. It seemed to conflict with the information our own Office of Emergency Services had received up to that point.

I was alone in the Yuba County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) when the automated evacuation call came to us from Butte County, and, to be perfectly honest, it’s the first time in my life I was nearly overwhelmed with panic. I made several calls, and within 20 minutes our Emergency Operations Center was filled with county staff and other public safety officials.

The fear I experienced was quickly overtaken by a great appreciation for the people who work for this county. Our Sheriff, County Administrator, and OES manager reviewed the emergency situation quickly and with amazing calm, and then the decision was made to issue the evacuation order for Yuba County. That decision was made out of real concern for everyone’s safety.

Even after the evacuation notice was issued, county staff continued to pour in to the Emergency Operations Center to assist in all the things that need to be done in such a situation. I recall moving about the EOC and thinking that I could not have been more proud of this team, most of whom had to send their families to evacuate without them. Everyone had a purpose and demonstrated real commitment and, yes, bravery.

This was Yuba County’s first major emergency that truly occurred in the era of social media. We worked quickly to adapt our messages that pretty much became one-on-one online discussions about what was taking place, where those evacuating needed to go, where to go for shelter and how to get assistance to those having difficulty evacuating. We also quickly learned how rumors can get out of hand in social media.

If a failure of the spillway occurred, our EOC still needed to function. We disassembled the EOC equipment, to relocate it up at the Nevada County Government Center. On our way up the hill, we received a police escort along the left hand lane through Beale AFB and on to Grass Valley. All along the roads beyond Beale, I saw scores of cars pulled off the road; people who had no plan – no place to go. Even after fleeing the valley floor, it must have added another layer of distress for those families that realized that the scope of the emergency left them without a place to land.

All three counties have rightly devoted a great deal of time looking back on what took place, examining the processes they used, and listening to the public and other emergency responders on what they saw during the evacuation.

Many residents who were stuck in traffic for hours tried to assign blame for the congestion, and that’s understandable. However, we could make adjustments to improve traffic flows, but a similar all-at-once evacuation in the future would look very much the same. You cannot evacuate 60,000 people and expect light traffic. Yuba County only has a limited number of roads, and we need to all work together, with a good measure of patience, during any emergency.

As discussions over repairs to the spillway and ongoing safety of the Oroville Dam system continue to play out, the Yuba County Office of Emergency Services will keep building on its mission to strengthen its response to an emergency. It’s the same mission we had before the evacuation, only now we have learned some good lessons.

The February 12, 2017 evacuation was a horribly disruptive event that will actually serve to make our county residents much safer in the future. We saw the evacuation of about 60,000 residents, but no one died and there was very little loss of property. Our emergency response team learned how to improve communications and to do a better job of anticipating the types of needs that arise in situations like that one. Our residents got a very real incentive to sign up for emergency alerts and to have “go bags” ready by their front doors, in case they need to leave suddenly.”

Recommended for you