Oroville Dam Flood Claims Filed

Concrete continues to be placed on the lower chute of the Lake Oroville flood control spillway in Butte County, California. Photo taken Aug. 7, 2017, by Dale Kolke/California Department of Water Resources.

California residents in the path of water spilled from the Oroville dam in February had until Aug. 11, six months after the incident, to file claims.

The Mercury News reported that Butte County farmer George Onyett, manager of J.E.M. Farms and Chandon Ranch, filed a $15 million claim, saying that after the flooding in February, about 25 acres of walnut trees were washed away by the Feather River. He said that 1% to 2% of the trees in his walnut orchard were lost and that his land is now “irrecoverable.”

Because of the near-collapse of the Oroville Dam in northern California, communities as far as 100 miles downstream were at risk of flooding. Problems at the dam began when its main water channel, or sluice, was damaged after a winter season of record rain and snowfall after five years of drought. Torrential rainfall caused water levels to rise so quickly that large amounts of water needed to be released to prevent the dam from rupturing and inundating the communities below.

But when the force of the cascading water created a large crater in the main spillway, use of the emergency spillway was required. This safety backup, however, also nearly failed because the dirt spillway, which had never been fortified by concrete, began to erode, increasing the risk of damage to the dam. In anticipation of a possible disaster, almost 200,000 residents living in the shadow of the dam were temporarily evacuated.

Niall McCarthy, an attorney representing the farm, said the spillway crisis was “entirely avoidable.” He pointed to waived concerns about inadequacies of the emergency spillway raised by nonprofit groups in 2005, as well as recently released reports by UC Berkeley Professor Robert Bea, of mismanagement by the state Department of Water Resources, according to the Mercury News.

“There was a certainty of failure with respect to the Oroville Dam,” McCarthy said. “The state chose to make band-aid repairs. The state failed to do its job. (This was) not caused by natural conditions, (but) by human error.”

State officials have maintained it is unclear whether the fluctuation in water releases from Oroville harmed the river and those who farm along it between the shore and major flood protection levees. They argue that some bank erosion would have occurred this year, regardless, given Northern California’s record rainy season, according to the Sacramento Bee.

A number of other business owners and individuals have also filed claims with the state Department of General Services. The Sacramento Bee reported that there were 11 claims at the beginning of July and that there are now a total of 92 claims filed by residents.

A list released by DGS showed claims totaling $1.17 billion. However, that includes a $1 billion claim filed on behalf of “all affected parties” owning land along Northern California rivers where flows were affected by sudden water releases from Oroville. That claim, filed by a Woodland lawyer named James Nolan, added that actual damage amounts aren’t yet available.

Construction efforts at the Oroville Dam spillways are underway and are focused on repairing and reconstructing the gated flood control spillway, also known as the main spillway, by Nov. 1, according to the California Department of Water Resources.

Combating Risks to the Electric Grid

Electricity is the foundation of society, making the electric grid one of our most critical infrastructures. It is also one of the most vulnerable, and is subject to a number of variables, according to, Lights Out: The risks of climate and natural disaster-related disruption to the electric grid, a study by students of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, funded by Swiss Re.

According to the report, in recent years there has been a trend of more natural disasters globally, with 191 natural catastrophes in 2016 and a 24% increase from the level in 2007. In the United States, 43 natural catastrophes caused huge property losses in 2016, almost double those of 2007.

Lights Out focuses on the Pacific Northwest, which is an “illustrative case study in climate and natural disaster related electric grid disruption. The region is prone not only to high-frequency, low-intensity natural disasters such as droughts and flooding, but also at risk of catastrophes like the Cascadian Subduction Zone (CSZ) event, an earthquake-tsunami combination that is expected to devastate the coastline from northern California to southern British Columbia,” according to the report.

As climate change alters the seasonality of water runoffs in the Pacific Northwest, the study found that electricity generation and the operation and maintenance of hydroelectric dams face greater challenges. What’s more, different parts of the grid are vulnerable to different perils. For example, above-ground lines are vulnerable to weather events, while underground lines are susceptible to earthquakes. In Oregon, for example:

More than 50% of substations would be damaged beyond repair in the event of a magnitude 9.0 earthquake. In addition, the vulnerability of the electric grid is highly interdependent with other critical infrastructure systems, including roads, water and sewage treatment, and natural gas pipelines. In the event of a major earthquake, damage to road networks can make it impossible to repair transmission and distribution lines, thereby preventing the restoration of all other electricity-dependent lifeline services (water, sewage, telecommunications).

The costs of outages for construction and restoration of the grid are estimated to be 1.59 times higher in highly populated locations versus flat land areas with fewer inhabitants. Costs are also higher when infrastructures such as emergency roads are destroyed, which would slow down repairs to roads, in turn delaying restoration of electric power and impacting telecommunications, water and sewage services.

There may be long-term financial implications as well, as entire communities would be impacted, leading to a possible migration of residents to areas not effected by the disaster. Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, for example, the population of New Orleans dropped dramatically, and 10 years later, had only returned to 90% of its pre- 2005 levels.

Total population of New Orleans 2000-2015; Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005:

With the increase in natural disasters, the recent destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy as well as the prospect of a magnitude 9.0 Cascadia earthquake, “It is imperative that public and private sector entities explore potential solutions for combating and mitigating damage to the electrical grid and disruption from power outages.” The report urged utilities to increase the resilience of their systems in a number of ways, beginning with conducting utility vulnerability assessments to identify vulnerable infrastructure and develop resilience plans. While many utilities have taken the initial step of identifying the resilience and mitigation strategies that they intend to implement, their implementations after these assessments vary widely by utility.

Utilities have several options for hardening the resilience of their systems, depending on the specific types of natural hazards they face. For example, checking poles for rot and moving infrastructure out of flood zones and landslide-prone areas helps to maintain distribution and transmission infrastructures, keeping them from going down in regions with heavy rainfall and flood risk. Pruning trees to protect wires from falling branches is also important in regions experiencing higher intensity storms, according to the report.

Highlighted trends:

  • Climate change is causing more severe and frequent natural disasters, meaning power systems face increased strain from catastrophes.
  • The interdependence of systems creates further complications: if the electric grid is down for an extended period, collateral effects can lead to disruptions in other services such as water, sewage and telecommunications.
  • The economic implications are challenging governments and energy providers. Not only do they require pre-disaster financing provided by insurance, they must address how to make their systems more resilient to future flooding, droughts and earthquakes.

Record Snowpack Brings Mixed Blessings to California

This year’s Sierra Nevada snowpack, one of the largest on record, has brought relief to California, which is still reeling from a five-year drought followed by record flooding. The snowpack is twice its average size, with some areas as deep as 80 feet, according to NASA. But with some rivers and dams still at higher than average levels, the fear is that warm temperatures or heavy rainfall will cause the snows to melt faster and bring more flooding.

Colorado and other mountain states, which also experienced heavy snowfall this winter are also concerned with runoff issues. Canada has faced severe runoff problems, after a heat wave earlier this spring resulted in major flooding in Quebec and British Columbia, the Wall Street Journal reported.

“The real wild card is if we get hit with a big rain event,” Frank Gehrke, chief snow surveyor for the California Department of Water Resources, told the Wall Street Journal as he monitored a rushing stream in late May. “That could throw the whole system into tilt.”

The Los Angeles Times reported last month that the rapid snowmelt has kept public agencies busy managing water levels across the state’s network of reservoirs. Water district managers must conduct daily conference calls to coordinate releases of water in order to monitor the amounts released into California’s rivers, creeks, bypasses and canals. This coordination is critical, as reservoir releases impact water levels downstream for days. Since one reservoir’s release may meet with another, managers must determine how much water the rivers and levees can support before overflowing.

A number of dams levees and weirs in the state are at least 60 years old, and in some areas more than 100 years old, according to a state Legislative Analyst’s Office report. It noted that flood-management responsibilities in California are spread across more than 1,300 agencies managing an infrastructure of more than 20,000 miles of levees and channels and more than 1,500 dams and reservoirs.

One reservoir in Los Angeles, the Silver Lake Reservoir, is benefiting from the snowpack and ample water supply. No longer used to store drinking water, the reservoir was drained in 2015. It sat empty and was seen as an eyesore, until recently when it was able to be refilled ahead of schedule.

According to the L.A. Times, the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council expressed its pleasure that the reservoir was refilled. The council’s co-chair, Anne-Marie Johnson, a second-generation Silver Lake resident, said she is “more than excited” that the landmark will no longer be an eyesore. “I am grateful to Mother Nature for providing us an abundance of snow. I don’t take that for granted,” she said.

Make Your Hurricane Preparations Now

With the Atlantic hurricane season’s official start on June 1, the time to check your buildings and existing contingency plans—or start a new one—is now, during hurricane preparedness week.

For 2017, Colorado State University’s hurricane research team predicts slightly below-average activity of hurricanes making landfall, with a forecast of 11 named storms, four hurricanes, and two major hurricanes.

The 2016 season is seen as a wakeup call, as 15 named storms and seven hurricanes formed in the Atlantic Basin—the largest number since 2012. Among the hurricanes was Matthew, a Category 4, which devastated Haiti, leaving 546 dead and hundreds of thousands in need of assistance. After being downgraded to a Category 2, Matthew pummeled southeast coastal regions of the U.S., with 43 deaths reported and widespread flooding in several states.

Here are 10 preparedness steps offered by FEMA:

The Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS) warns that small businesses are especially vulnerable. Of businesses closed because of a disaster, at least one in four never reopens.

IBHS offers these steps for preparing a business for hurricane season:

  1. Have your building(s) inspected and complete any maintenance needed to ensure your building can stand up to severe weather.
  2. Designate an employee to monitor weather reports and alert your team to the potential of severe weather.
  3. Review your business continuity plan and update as needed, including employee contact information. If you do not have a business continuity plan, consider IBHS’ free, easy-to-use business continuity plan toolkit for small businesses.
  4. Remind employees of key elements of the plan, including post-event communication procedures and work/payroll procedures. Make sure all employees have a paper copy of the plan. Review emergency shutdown and start-up procedures, such as electrical systems, with appropriate personnel, including alternates.
  5. If backup power such as a diesel generator is to be used, test your system and establish proper contracts with fuel suppliers for emergency fuel deliveries.
  6. Re-inspect and replenish emergency supplies inventory, since emergency supplies are often used during the offseason for non-emergency situations.
  7. Test all life safety equipment.
  8. Conduct training/simulation exercises for both your business continuity and emergency preparedness/response plans.

Interstate Restoration has a day-by-day list of steps for business storm preparation, based on NOAA recommendations. They include research, planning and documenting, gathering emergency supplies, checking insurance coverage and supply chain and finalizing your plan.