Last week, Assembly Water, Parks & Wildlife (Chaired by Eduardo Garcia, Indio), Budget Subcommittee No. 3 on Resources & Transportation (Chaired by Richard Bloom, Santa Monica), and Accountability & Administrative Review (Chaired by Susan Talamantes Eggman, Stockton) convened a joint informational and oversight hearing on the Oroville Dam/Spillway incident of last February.  An overview of the Oroville facility was provided by the Legislative Analyst’s Office (Rachel Ehlers) by way of background.  

The overview was followed by two panels: the first made up of John Laird, Secretary of the Natural Resources Agency, Bill Croyle, Acting Director of the Department of Water Resources (DWR), and David Gutierrez, GEI Consultants and hired as a Senior Advisor to the DWR Acting Director; and the second panel included Ron Stork, Senior Policy Advocate for Friends of the River, Robert Bea, PhD, UC Berkeley Center for Catastrophic Risk, and Bill Connelly, Chair, Butte County Board of Supervisors.

Secretary Laird and Acting Director Croyle largely restated the testimony presented to the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee earlier this month describing the incident in general terms, providing an update on the status of the repairs, and expressing a commitment public safety as the top priority.  Mr. Gutierrez spent the largest portion of his time speaking to the challenges of balancing safety risk against costs.  All three panelists were peppered by the Committee members with questions ranging from the efficacy of the evacuation and notification procedures to concerns over an organizational (DWR) culture that allows for deficiencies brought forward by inspections but not acted upon.  Public trust in DWR’s ability was a theme that also came forward as did questions related to the Board of Consultants* memo that was released earlier within the last week.

The second panel was given a more generous reception. While all three panel members expressed some level of disappointment and frustration at what was described as an organization suffering from cultural/institutional failings, the “meat” of the panel was presented by Dr. Bea.  His experience has been informed by system collapses such as the BP Oil Platform disaster in the Gulf of Mexico to the New Orleans levee failures resulting from Hurricane Katrina.  Based on these past events, he provided a critical assessment of the forensic work being undertaken by DWR, and suggested several areas of improvement involving a greater level of attention to the root causes of the organization’s management of the Oroville facility. Supervisor Connelly made an impassioned plea to recognize the costs to Butte County for serving as the “host” to this facility – not only as it related to February’s incident, but ongoing over the years.  He pointed to the wear-and-tear to the roads, emergency services being provided by the Sheriff’s department, and the loss of property tax revenue related to the 41,000 acres encompassed by the Oroville complex.

While the panel presentations were important to building facts of the matter, perhaps more concerning was the lack of legislators in attendance.  Together the three committees include 27 members of the Assembly, yet, only six (Messrs, Gallagher, Frazier, and Levine, in addition to the three chairs noted above) were present for all or part of the hearing, plus Senator Nielsen.  He was also present at the Senate hearing of a few weeks ago.

*The Board of Consultants is team of outside professionals brought in by DWR to provide a forensic analysis of “what went wrong.”  Their initial report to DWR regarding the incident was released May 5, 2017 and reported on by various news agencies.