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Nearly 200,000 urged to evacuate as concerns over California dam increase

February 13, 2017

Oroville Dam’s emergency spillway is in danger of failing

At least 188,000 people were under evacuation orders Monday as crews raced against time to keep an emergency spillway at the country’s tallest dam from failing and potentially unleashing uncontrolled flood waters on towns below.

Lake Oroville, about 150 miles northeast of San Francisco, is one of the state’s largest man-made lakes. Sunday’s evacuation order came after engineers discovered a hole that was eroding near the top of the 770-foot-tall Oroville Dam’s emergency spillway, sparking fears it could fail.

Water levels at the dam were dropping on Monday. California Department of Water Resources officials say flows into the lake were just under 45,000 cubic feet per second. Outflows remained high at nearly 100,000 cubic feet per second.

Still, state officials said they would have to inspect the erosion scar on the spillway themselves before determining the next steps. What’s more, forecasters have predicted another round of rain Wednesday could soak the area and put new pressure on the dam and spillway.

The cities of Oroville, Gridley, Live Oak, Marysville, Wheatland, Yuba City, Plumas Lake and Olivehurst were all under evacuation orders. Emergency officials stressed that the dam was structurally sound, Fox 2 reported.

Hundreds of cars carrying panicked and angry people were sitting in gridlocked traffic Sunday.

“The police came and told us to evacuate,” said Kaysi Levias who was with her husband, Greg, at a gas station as they attempted to get out.

Officials warned residents at the time that the spillway could fail within an hour.

“I’m just shocked,” Greg Levias said. “Pretty mad.”

“Not giving us more warning,” said Kaysi, finishing his sentence.

What they couldn’t fit they piled as high as they could in their downstairs Yuba City apartment and joined the line of traffic attempting to leave the city where they had moved just three weeks ago.

“This is very serious” California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Scott McClean told the SF Gate as he was stuck in massive amounts of traffic. “I’m just trying to get through traffic.”

The erosion at the head of the emergency spillway threatened to undermine the concrete weir and allow large, uncontrolled releases of water from Lake Oroville, the California Department of Water Resources said. Those potential flows could overwhelm the Feather River and other downstream waterways, channels and levees.

Unexpected erosion chewed through the main spillway earlier this week, sending chunks of concrete flying and creating a 200-foot-long, 30-foot-deep hole. Engineers don’t know what caused the cave-in, but Chris Orrock, a spokesman for the state Department of Water Resources, said it appears the dam’s main spillway has stopped crumbling even though it’s being used for water releases.

Late Sunday, officials said the evacuation orders remained in place despite the fact water was no longer spilling over the eroded area.

Butte County Sheriff Koney Honea said engineers with the Department of Water Resources informed him shortly after 6 p.m. that the erosion was not advancing as fast as they thought.

“Unfortunately they couldn’t advise me or tell me specifically how much time that would take so we had to make the very difficult and critical decision to initiate the evacuation of the Orville area and all locations south of that,” he said. “We needed to get people moving quickly to save lives if the worst case scenario came into fruition.”

Honea said there is a plan to plug the hole by using helicopters to drop rocks into the crevasse.

The California Department of Water Resources said it was releasing as much as 100,000 cubic feet per second from the main spillway to try to drain the lake.