About 188,000 residents near Oroville, Calif. were ordered to evacuate Sunday after a hole in an emergency spillway in the Oroville Dam threatened to flood the surrounding area. Thousands clogged highways leading out of the area headed south, north and west and arteries major and minor remained jammed as midnight approached on the West Coast.
Even as they fled, however, the flow of water over the spillway halted late in the evening, stabilizing the crisis. But officials warned the damaged infrastructure could create further dangers as storms approach in the week ahead and it remained unclear when residents might be able to return to their homes.
Lake Oroville is one of California’s largest man-made lakes with 3.5 million acre-feet of water and 167 miles of shoreline, and the 770-foot-tall Oroville Dam is the nation’s tallest, about 44 feet higher than Hoover Dam on the Colorado River. The lake is the linchpin of California’s government-run water delivery system, sending water from the Sierra Nevada for agriculture in the Central Valley and for residents and businesses in Southern California. There was never any danger of the dam collapsing.
The problem was with the spillways, which are safety valves designed to release water in a controlled fashion. One crumbled on Tuesday.
Officials had initially predicted the second one, an emergency spillway, to fail earlier in the day, creating a “hazardous situation,” for the Lake Oroville area, located about 75 miles north of Sacramento and about 25 miles southeast of Chico, the Butte County Sheriff’s Office wrote in a news release, adding that this was “NOT a drill.” But as the reservoir’s water levels lowered, the flows over the emergency spillway ceased.
California Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. issued an emergency order to boost the state’s response to the evacuation efforts and spillway crisis, which Brown called “complex and rapidly changing.” Despite the minimized threats, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said in a news conference at about 10 p.m. local time Sunday that he would not be lifting the mandatory evacuation order until water resources officials had a better grasp on the anticipated risks.
Travelers reported traffic at a standstill on some routes, especially on Highway 99. As major designated shelters filled up, churches and other facilities opened their doors to the evacuees.
Kyle Dobson, 41, said he was visiting the dam Sunday afternoon from Yuba City, Calif., and noticed that the lake was higher than he had ever seen it. He said he got a call later in the day that Oroville was being evacuated. By the time he got home, Yuba City had also been ordered to evacuate.
Dobson said he and his wife packed about a week’s worth of clothes for themselves and their four young children, and moved pictures and other belongings to the second floor of their two-story home. For now, they are staying put, but if the situation gets worse, they will drive to Sutter, Calif., to stay with family, Dobson said.
“I’ll stay up probably all night, listen to the police scanner and watch the reports come in,” he said. “The river levels — that’s what you’ve got to watch out for.”
Out of an “abundance of caution,” inmates were in the process of being evacuated from the Butte County Jail Sunday night, the sheriff’s office wrote on Facebook.
— Kurt H (@khphotos) February 13, 2017
“We needed to get people moving quickly in order to protect the public and save lives if the worst case scenario did come to fruition,” Honea said.
The damaged primary spillway caused water flowing downstream to become muddy and brown with debris earlier this week, threatening the lives of millions of baby Chinook salmon in the Feather River Hatchery below. In a rescue operation, officials with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife successfully moved about 5 million Chinook salmon to a nearby annex, the department said on Facebook.
The other 3 million baby salmon will remain at the main hatchery, where staff and engineers have rigged a system of pumps, pipes and generators and a sediment pond in the hopes of filtering the water enough to support the fish.
Ironically, the state’s five years of drought caused Lake Oroville’s water levels to plunge to a low of 33 percent of capacity, according to the Los Angeles Times. The lake became a poster child for the drought. In a dramatic shift, Northern California witnessed an extraordinarily rainy winter this year that caused waters to rise to their highest levels in decades.