(OROVILLE, Calif.) — Crews working around the clock atop a crippled California dam reported progress Tuesday in repairing the damaged spillway and reducing the water level by at least 8 feet at the reservoir that has been central to this farming region for a half century.
Helicopters carried giant sandbags and cement blocks from a staging area on the south side of the Oroville Dam toward the stricken spillway on the north side. Crews operating heavy equipment loaded rocks and boulders into dump trucks, which carried them over the dam and dumped them on damaged portions.
Workers are rushing to repair the barrier at the nation’s tallest dam after authorities ordered the evacuation of nearly 200,000 people living below the lake amid concerns the spillway could fail and send water roaring downstream. Evacuations remain in place.
Gov. Jerry Brown asked for direct federal assistance for an estimated 10,000 displaced residents.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer said President Donald Trump “was keeping a close eye” on the situation and “working closely” with state officials.
“The situation is a textbook example of why we need to pursue a major infrastructure package in Congress,” Spicer said at news conference in Washington.
State Department of Water Resources officials hope to reduce the lake level to 860 feet by Thursday, when storms are expected to bring more rain, spokesman Chris Orrock said. The level was 884 feet on Tuesday morning.
The lake that for five decades has brought residents holiday fireworks and salmon festivals now could bring disaster.
“Never in our lives did we think anything like this would have happened,” said Brannan Ramirez, who has lived in Oroville, a town of about 16,000 people, for about five years.
The Gold Rush town in the Sierra Nevada foothills, some 70 miles northeast of Sacramento, is nestled near the foot of the dam, which was completed in 1968 and at 770 feet is the nation’s tallest. Houses and churches are perched on tree-lined streets near the Feather River. Old, ornate Victorian homes sit alongside smaller bungalows.
“Everybody knows to go there for the Fourth of July,” evacuee Crystal Roberts-Lynch said of the lake. “Then there’s festivals wrapped around the salmon run.” The mother of three, who has lived in Oroville for 10 years, was staying at a Red Cross evacuation center in Chico.
Local businesses, including one that sells supplies for gold-panning, dominate a downtown area that spans several blocks. A wide range of chain stores sit a short distance away along the main highway.
“The lake brings in an enormous part of the economy for the town. It definitely is a people-catcher,” said Brannan Ramirez, who has lived in Oroville for about five years. “We get people from all over the country.”
Cities and towns farther down the Feather River also are in danger.
Yuba City, population 65,000, is the biggest city evacuated. The city has the largest dried-fruit processing plant in the world and one of the largest populations of Sikhs outside of India.
The region is largely rural, with its politics dominated by rice growers, orchard operators and other agricultural interests. The region is dogged by the high unemployment rates endemic to farming communities. There are large pockets of poverty and swaths of sparsely populated forests, popular with anglers, campers and backpackers.
For now, it’s all at the mercy of the reservoir that usually sustains it, and provides water for much of the state.
“If anything, we would have thought that the dam would have been constructed better,” Ramirez said.
Ramirez said it was “extremely frustrating” when he heard reports that emerged Monday of complaints about the potential danger that came from environmentalists and government officials a dozen years ago.
Those warnings described the very scenario that was threatening to unfold, though they were dismissed by state and federal regulators who expressed confidence that the dam and its spillways could withstand serious storms.
The acting head of the state’s Department of Water Resources said he was unaware of the 2005 report that recommended reinforcing with concrete an earthen spillway that is now eroding.
“I’m not sure anything went wrong,” Bill Croyle said. “This was a new, never-having-happened-before event.”
Roberts-Lynch didn’t buy the explanations.
“I know that somebody did not pay attention to the warning signs,” she said. “Someone in charge was not paying attention. It was their job to pay attention to what was going on with the dam.”
Over the weekend, the swollen lake spilled down the unpaved, emergency spillway, which had never been used before, for nearly 40 hours, leaving it badly eroded.
Officials defended the decision to suddenly call for mass evacuations Sunday, just a few hours after saying the situation was stable, forcing families to rush to pack up and get out.
“There was a lot of traffic. It was chaos,” said Robert Brabant, an Oroville resident who evacuated with his wife, son, dogs and cats. “It was a lot of accidents. It was like people weren’t paying attention to other people.”
Gov. Jerry Brown said Monday that he sent a letter to the White House requesting direct federal assistance in the emergency, though some federal agencies have been helping already.
Brown has had harsh words for President Donald Trump, and the state has vowed to resist many of his administration’s efforts.
But the governor said at a news conference that he’s “sure that California and Washington will work in a constructive way. That’s my attitude. There will be different points of view, but we’re all one America.”
Evacuee Kelly Remocal said she believed the public officials working on the problem were “downplaying everything so people don’t freak out.”
“I honestly don’t think they’re going to be able to do it, fix the problem,” she said. “This requires a little more than a Band-Aid. At this point, they have no choice but to give it a Band-Aid fix.”