Oroville Dam Spillway Incident

The Independent Forensic Team has prepared a comprehensive report on the failure of the Oroville Dam Spillways in February 2017. The main report is some 500 pages long and is critical of the design and the dam safety procedures. We understand that it is already shaking up dam safety practice in the US. An extract from the executive summary of their report follows:
In addition to lessons which are specific to the California Department of Water Resources (DWR), as described in this report, the following are some of the general lessons to be learned by the broader dam safety community:

  • In order to ensure the safe management of water retention and conveyance structures, dam owners must develop and maintain mature dam safety management programs which are based on a strong “top-down” dam safety culture. There should be one executive specifically charged with overall responsibility for dam safety, and this executive should be fully aware of dam safety concerns and prioritizations through direct and regular reporting from a designated dam safety professional, to ensure that “the balance is right” in terms of the organization’s priorities.
  • More frequent physical inspections are not always sufficient to identify risks and manage safety.
  • Periodic comprehensive reviews of original design and construction and subsequent performance are imperative. These reviews should be based on complete records and need to be more in-depth than periodic general reviews, such as the current FERC-mandated five-year reviews.
  • Appurtenant structures associated with dams, such as spillways, outlet works, power plants, etc., must be given attention by qualified individuals. This attention should be commensurate with the risks that the facilities pose to the public, the environment, and dam owners, including risks associated with events which may not result in uncontrolled release of reservoirs, but are still highly consequential.
  • Shortcomings of the current Potential Failure Mode Analysis (PFMA) processes in dealing with complex systems must be recognized and addressed. A critical review of these processes in dam safety practice is warranted, comparing their strengths and weaknesses with risk assessment processes used in other industries worldwide and by other federal agencies. Evolution of “best practice” must continue by supplementing current practice with new approaches, as appropriate.
  • Compliance with regulatory requirements is not sufficient to manage risk and meet dam owners’ legal and ethical responsibilities.

Some of these general lessons are self-evident, and have been noted by others previous to the IFT’s investigation of this incident. The question is whether dam owners, regulators, and other dam safety professionals will recognize that many of these lessons are actually still to be learned. Although the practice of dam safety has certainly improved since the 1970s, the fact that this incident happened to the owner of the tallest dam in the United States, under regulation of a federal agency, with repeated evaluation by reputable outside consultants, in a state with a leading dam safety regulatory program, is a wake-up call for everyone involved in dam safety. Challenging current assumptions on what constitutes “best practice” in our industry is overdue.

View a copy of the full report.