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Oroville reservoir drops as storm approaches

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 2/17/2017 Trevor Hughes
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OROVILLE, Calif. — The roar has quieted and the spray has softened, and all signs point toward improving conditions at the base of the Oroville Dam.

Growing increasingly confident in their efforts to protect the dam against a predicted rainstorm over the next five days, dam managers say there’s no longer a need to spill so much water from the reservoir, and on Thursday morning began slowly slowing the releases. 

Spilling water from the reservoir creates space to absorb new rainstorms, and officials say they believe they’ve also made significant progress in repairing damage to an emergency spillway they were worried could fail. That means the overall danger has decreased, said Bill Croyle, the acting director of the California Department of Water Resources.

“It’s much, much, much lower than it was on Sunday,” Croyle said.

Fears the dam’s emergency spillway could erode after days of rain prompted officials late Sunday to order the emergency evacuation of about 200,000 area residents downstream. They softened that order to a warning on Tuesday, and residents have largely returned to the area, keeping a wary eye on the earthen dam and its spillways. 

Dam managers had been spilling about 750,000 gallons of water per second to drop the water levels and increase storage capacity. They’ve now reduced that to about 600,000 gallons per second, and the decrease is noticeable.

Reducing the spillage gives workers a chance to remove debris and accumulated sediment from the dam’s base and adjacent hydroelectric plant. During the height of the failure danger, Pacific Gas & Electric workers severed the plant’s power lines to limit potential damage, and are now repairing those lines. 

Croyle said he wasn’t sure when the plant would again be generating power, but he said forecast rainstorms appeared unlikely to cause any more problems or force a new evacuation.

“With the weather that we are seeing, I don’t see it,” he said.

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A steady stream of trucks, helicopters, backhoes and other equipment helped workers repair the dam and power lines in the area Thursday, as forecast rains held off and the sun briefly shone through the clouds. 

The helicopters are dropping rock, gravel and sand onto the emergency spillway, which eroded while in use as managers struggled to balance the heavy inflows over the past weekend. Concerns about damage to the primary spillway prompted officials to use the emergency spillway until the water levels dropped. Now, more water is flowing out than in.

Reducing the amount of water spilled from the dam also reduces flooding fears downstream, because it can be released carefully, under controlled conditions. The Feather River is contained within levees as it flows out of Oroville about 30 miles south to Marysville, and numerous orchards, roads and fields remain flooded. But the water levels are far below the flood stage of the river, and locals say they’ve seen far worse in years past.

Authorities on Thursday also pushed back forcefully against Internet chatter based off a social media posting showing a California National Guard soldier giving incorrect information about the dam’s status and the evacuation area. The soldier’s response to questions from a woman at a gas station, and posted to Facebook “was wrong,” said Maj. Gen David Baldwin, the adjutant general. Baldwin said the soldier appeared to have gotten flustered and “went off the rails” from the official talking points he’d been given.

“You can trust the National Guard,” Baldwin said.

Both Baldwin and Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea appeared frustrated at how quickly the solder’s answers spread via social media, and said they were committed to providing accurate, timely information to the public through the media and directly via Facebook broadcasts and Twitter alerts.

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