FERC hydro dam safety post-Oroville

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

As federal hydropower regulators examine how a California dam's spillway failed, an independent forensic team has released its final report on the Oroville Dam spillway incident -- and regulators have asked all other hydropower licensees to review the report and hold internal discussions on how the findings may apply to their own facilities and overall dam safety program.

Oroville Dam is a 770-foot high earthfill embankment dam on the Feather River in Northern California. Its service spillway was severely damaged during operations on February 7, 2017; water levels continued to rise, eventually overtopping and eroding the emergency spillway, threatening the stability of the structure on February 12, 2017.  Over 180,000 people were evacuated.

Following the incident, an independent forensic team studied the incident. The independent forensic team's report was released on January 5, 2018. It found that the incident "was caused by a long-term systemic failure of the California Department of Water Resources (DWR), regulatory, and general industry practices to recognize and address inherent spillway design and construction weaknesses, poor bedrock quality, and deteriorated service spillway chute conditions."

On January 26, 2018, the Commission published a letter to licensees presenting the Oroville Dam Independent Forensic Team's final report. In that letter, the Commission asked licensees and their Chief Dam Safety Engineers/Coordinators to "read this report, share it with your senior executives as well as all your dam safety staff and discuss how the findings may apply to your own facilities and overall dam safety program.

According to the Commission, that report concludes that flaws in the Oroville Dam Spillway existed since construction that were missed by the owner, regulators, and consultants. In the Commission's words, "It is very clear that just because a project has operated successfully for a long period of time does not guarantee that it will continue to do so." Emphasizing a safety-oriented corporate culture, the Commission also highlighted the report's finding that "compliance with regulatory requirements is not sufficient to manage risk and meet dam owners' legal and ethical responsibilities." The Commission's letter to hydropower licensees and exemptees highlights the importance of communication between dam safety staff and senior executives as part of an Owner's Dam Safety Program, and stated its expectation that regulated dam owners will have internal discussions to ensure facility safety.

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