When authorities were forced to use Oroville Damâs emergency spillway, as recent storms caused the adjacent reservoir to swell, they expected to let water flow for at least 32 hours, 58 at the most.
But after just less than a day, the emergency spillway in Californiaâs gold country was at risk of failing. A craterlike hole had surfaced Sunday. Officials feared the worst: That further erosion would cause the spillway to collapse,Â clearing theÂ way for a 30-foot-wall of water from the overfull reservoir to engulf surrounding areas.
âItâs just amazing,â said Ron Stork, an environmentalist who warned state and federal officials 12 years ago that the emergency spillway, which is no more than a 1,700-foot concrete weir that empties into a dirt hillside, was unsafe. âItâs like the rock was melting.â
The hole is so massive that by Monday, according to media reports, officials had to use helicopters to drop loads of rocks into it. Meanwhile,Â the damâs main spillway, a 3,000-foot structure lined in concrete, alsoÂ has its own mammoth craterlike hole. Both were the result of erosion as high volumes of waterÂ came gushing from the reservoir.
Crews placing material to stabilize the erosion https://t.co/YV9VgwyhO7
â CA â DWR (@CA_DWR) February 14, 2017
The past few daysâ events, which displaced nearly 200,000 area residents for about two days, raise several questions about why the infrastructure failed in the first place and what long-term fixes should happen to avoid future catastrophe.
The California Department of Water Resources, which owns and operates theÂ dam and reservoir, has startedÂ planning for those long-term fixes,Â a spokeswoman said. Options that are under consideration include reconstructing the main spillway and lining the emergency spillway with concrete. Any of those options would likely cost millions of dollars. Requesting federal dollars to help with repairs is a possibility, though no decisions have been made.
Details of the reconstruction plan are still being determined, according to the agency.
âOnce this is over with, once they get the water down, theyâll have to do some investigative work and determine what caused this in the first place,â said Dusty Myers, an engineer and president of the Association of State Dam Safety Officials. âHow didÂ they lose material underneath? What caused it to collapse? [The answers] will dictate what work they do.â
By Monday, officials had started filling the hole in the emergency spillway with tons of rock. Thatâs a temporary fix to prepare forÂ a series of storms that are expected to hit the areaÂ over the next few days. Theyâve also doubled the flow of water out of the main spillway to 100,000 cubic feet per second, with the hope of lowering the lake level by 50 feet to leave room for upcoming rain.
A view of the concrete spillway from the top of the dam. This is what 100,000 cubic feet per second looks like pic.twitter.com/GerDrq0YPz
â Chris Megerian (@ChrisMegerian) February 14, 2017
By Tuesday afternoon, residents were allowed back into their homes, according to media reports. Officials also said that the flow of water being released from the dam is âsustainableâ and has reduced the possibility of the lake overflowing, the Los Angeles Times reported.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer said during a news briefing Tuesday that President Trump is âkeeping a close eyeâ on the Oroville Dam emergency, a âtextbook exampleâ of the countryâs need for better infrastructure, the Los Angeles Times reported.
âDams, bridges, roads and all ports around the country have fallen into disrepair. In order to prevent the next disaster, we will pursue the presidentâs vision for overhaul of our nationâs crumbling infrastructure,â Spicer said.
Marcia Hale, president of Building Americaâs Future, a bipartisan group of elected officials advocating for investment in infrastructure, agreed.
âThis is clearly a mammoth problem for the state of California,â Hale said. âBut it highlights the fact that many of our dams around the country need attention. They need to be refurbished, repaired and brought into the 21st century.â
Spicerâs remarks come the day after California Gov. Jerry Brown (D)Â wrote a letter to the White House describing the scope of the damages and requesting for federal assistance for some of the residents who were forced to evacuate.
âI have determined this incident is of such severity and magnitude that continued effective response is beyond the capabilities of the State and affected local governments and supplemental federal assistance is necessary to save lives and to protect property, public health and safety, and to lessen the effects of this serious situation,â Brown wrote.
Brownâs letter does not address the possibility of asking for federal dollars to help pay for reconstruction.
One possible avenue for federal funding is legislation that President Barack Obama signed inÂ December, Hale said. The Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, or WIIN, is a major water infrastructure package that allocates $12 billion toÂ water projects around the country.
But the cost of repairing the nationâs federal dams far surpasses that number.Â The Association of State Dam Safety Officials estimatesÂ that rehabilitatingÂ federal dams would cost more than $57 billion.
The possible need for federal funds for California comes at a time when the stateâs relationship with the president continues to sour. Just earlier this month, Trump threatened to âdefundâ the stateÂ partly because of its sanctuary cities for undocumented immigrants.
During a news conference Monday evening, Brown said heâs not worried that the presidentâs criticism of California would prevent the state from receiving aid for the Oroville dam emergency.
âThere are hundreds of thousands of people affected by this,â Hale said. âItâs an infrastructure problem, not a political problem.â