Government Misjudged Strength of Oroville Emergency Spillway, Records Show

Crews work on a damaged section of the emergency spillway at Lake Oroville on Feb. 13, 2017. (Credit: Josh Edelson / AFP/ Getty Images)

Bill Croyle stood in front of an aerial photo of Lake Oroville and swept his hand across the top of the emergency spillway that was helping drain water out of the brimming reservoir.

“Solid rock. All this is rock,” Croyle, acting director of the Department of Water Resources, said with an air of confidence at the Feb. 11 briefing.

The flows over the concrete lip of the unpaved spillway were tiny compared with what it was designed to handle. Oroville’s first-ever emergency spill was going smoothly.

Some 27 hours later, state officials told Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea that erosion was chewing away at the base of the spillway’s concrete lip. It was on the verge of collapse, threatening to send a towering wall of flood water surging through downstream communities, endangering tens of thousands of people. Honea ordered a mass evacuation.

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