Calif. officials rush to drain lake as new storms begin

Published 7:45 am Thursday, February 16, 2017

OROVILLE, Calif. — Officials raced to drain more water from a lake behind battered Oroville Dam as new storms began rolling into Northern California on Wednesday and tested the quick repairs made to damaged spillways that raised flood fears.

The three storms were expected to stretch into next week. Forecasters said the first two storms could drop a total of 5 inches of rain in higher elevation.

However, the third storm, starting as early as Monday, could be more powerful.

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“There a potential for several inches,” National Weather Service forecaster Tom Dang said. “It will be very wet.”

Nonetheless, California Department of Water Resources chief Bill Croyle said water was draining at about four times the rate that it was flowing in and the repairs should hold at the nation’s tallest dam.

About 100,000 cubic feet of water was flowing from the reservoir each second, enough to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool.

Croyle said work crews had made “great progress” cementing thousands of tons of rocks into holes in the spillways.

“We shouldn’t see a bump in the reservoir” from the upcoming storms, he said.

The reservoir has dropped 20 feet since it reached capacity Sunday. Croyle said officials hope it falls 50 feet by this Sunday.

Still, officials warned residents who have returned to their homes that the area downstream of the dam remained under an evacuation warning and they should be prepared to leave if the risk increases.

Some 200,000 people were allowed to return home Tuesday after being ordered to evacuate Sunday.

Sandra Waters, 42, of Oroville initially fled her home with little more than the clothes she was wearing. Now, she’s preparing for the possibility of another evacuation by gathering food, clothing and sentimental items like photographs.

“You are always cautious when you live under a big dam, but we’ve always been pretty confident that it was safe and that it wasn’t going to fail,” she said.

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said some homes in the evacuation zone had been burglarized and deputies had made arrests.

He also called on private drone operators to refrain from flying their devices over the dam. Private drones can interfere with the repair work, which includes helicopters, he said.

The 770-foot-tall dam is located in Oroville, a small Gold Rush-era town along the Feather River in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

The region is largely rural, with its politics dominated by rice growers, orchard operators and other agricultural interests. It’s dogged by the high unemployment rates endemic to farming communities.