OROVILLE (CBS13) — Just days before the last repair work begins on the Oroville Dam spillway, the federal government is balking at whether or not it will pay for the repairs.
Rep. John Garamendi (D-Davis) and Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Oroville) have been speaking with the Federal Emergency Management Agency for months to cover up to 75 percent of the repair costs, but have little to show for it.
The agency is conducting a forensics study of the spillway but says it doesn’t have the legal precedent to reimburse repair costs from damage caused by deferred maintenance and design deficiencies.
“The federal government has a rule: They don’t pay for disasters that are a result of poor maintenance or no maintenance at all,” Garamendi said. “There is a forensics study that indicates maintenance did not occur, so FEMA is questioning whether the government is responsible.”
The final outcome of the study has yet to be determined.
If FEMA doesn’t pay, that means the nearly $1 billion price tag will fall on state and local governments instead. The assumption has been that FEMA would cover up to 75 percent of more than $850 million in repairs.
Garamendi says the responsibility for that falls on misplaced priorities by the California Department of Water Resources, which he says didn’t protect its most valuable asset.
“My take on this is the department of water resources and their major contractors spent their money on the twin tunnels, nearly $400 million, and didn’t spend a nickel on maintaining the spillway,” he said. “Everything we know from FEMA is they’re playing by the book and the book says if there’s a disaster caused by a lack of maintenance, the government doesn’t pay.”
The twin tunnels are a key part of Gov. Jerry Brown’s Waterfix project to send water to Southern California from Northern California through the Delta via a pair of massive tunnels.
The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California would be a major recipient of the water and has voted to put money toward the project. Another water district in the Bay Area was set to vote on approving the tunnels on Wednesday, but delayed the vote after a long public comment period.
The tunnels project has drawn a significant backlash from environmental groups over the loss of water from Northern California waterways, as well as the potentially devastating damage it could do to the delta and the wildlife that call it home.
The Oroville Dam spillway has been a source of major concern for more than a year. In February 2017, cracks began to form on the main spillway while it was in use during one of California’s wettest winters. Days later, those cracks turned into a gaping maw, with chunks of the bottom of the chute missing, as well as a gash in the hillside.
With the main spillway damaged and rain still falling, the lake was filling faster than it was emptying. Water began to run over the never-before-used auxiliary spillway, which essentially was an unpaved path down the earthen dam.
A day after the auxiliary spillway was put into use, concerns began to arise over whether it would hold or whether the integrity of the dam would be in jeopardy. With little to no lighting and night drawing near, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea made the call to evacuate Oroville and the areas in the path of a potential sudden release of water.
About 188,000 people were evacuated for days while they waited for water levels to drop, and a general unease has been around the community for the past 15 months. In the end, the dam itself did not fail, and residents were able to return home safely with no damage done.
As the weather dried out, a rapid effort to shore up the spillway got underway with a tight timeline to have the main spillway usable for winter. Crews were able to get the first phase of repairs done by November, with more work just days away.
Garamendi and LaMalfa sent a joint letter to FEMA Administrator William Long in February after concerns arose over a letter Long wrote about the recovery efforts in Puerto Rico. Long had pointed out that FEMA would have limits on the repairs done in the U.S. territory and would not repair damage caused by a lack of maintenance.
Puerto Rico has faced years of financial problems that started with the recession and led to the establishment of an oversight board by Congress that put austerity measures in place limiting the country’s public service budget. Then came September and Hurricane Maria, a category 5 storm that devastated the island that was already dealing with the impact from Hurricane Irma weeks before.
Since then, the territory has struggled with its recovery, rebuilding a fragile electrical system. In April, the entire island went dark when workers struck a line.
In January, Long said the agency could only reimburse Puerto Rico to bring facilities back to their state before the disaster.