By Nick Cahill
SACRAMENTO (CN) – Despite a near disaster in 2017 at the nation’s tallest dam, operators and regulators of California’s high-risk dams have been slow to react and plan for catastrophic failures, according to a state audit released Thursday.
Of the 650 dams the state believes could be deadly in the event of failure, just 22 have state-approved emergency plans in place. Subpar planning and lack of funding for repairs place people living beneath many of California’s 1,200 dams at high risk, says State Auditor Elaine Howle.
“The potentially catastrophic consequences of a dam failure, the significant number of dams in less than satisfactory condition, and the remaining work necessary to ensure that emergency planning is complete and approved lead us to conclude that water infrastructure remains a high-rise issue,” the audit states.
The state narrowly averted disaster in 2017 when the spillway at Oroville Dam cracked during a major winter storm and sent nearly 200,000 Northern Californians fleeing. The near-catastrophe at the 770-foot dam not only prompted evacuations and more than $1 billion in repairs, it revealed the decrepit condition of the state’s outdated water infrastructure.
Responding to public outrage, lawmakers and then-Gov. Jerry Brown passed a series of laws requiring regulators to catalog the condition of dams and increase inspections, while some operators were required to submit inundation maps and emergency plans. Howle also followed up with a 2018 report noting the age and worrisome condition of the dams.
Yet according to the audit, many dam owners have yet to turn in required reports and even worse, 150 plans that were rejected remain unapproved. Howle says regulators need to demand the overdue reports and make them a higher priority.
“Unless the Department of Water Resources and the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services take sufficient action to ensure that dam owners complete adequate emergency planning, the state will continue to have little assurance that its emergency responses to potential dam failures will be sufficient,” the audit continues.
Aside from dam safety concerns, the audit says the state’s water infrastructure remains at risk due to inaction on a plan meant to bolster water delivery systems that supply farms and cities in the central and southern parts of the state.
After decades of planning, millions spent on environmental review and a litany of lawsuits, Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2019 officially nixed the so-called Delta Tunnels plan that would have cost at least $17 billion to build.
Environmentalists celebrated the move but their joy was dashed earlier this month when the Newsom administration announced it was beginning environmental review on a similar albeit downsized plan. Proponents say it’s a long overdue infrastructure update and will help ward off damage to crucial aqueducts caused by earthquakes and rising sea levels.
The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is the state’s water savings bank and the source of water for federal and state water projects that supply more than 27 million residents.
Howle says there is not enough information currently available on the new plan to determine the “eventual effect of a one-tunnel project on the state’s water infrastructure.”
In response to the audit, the Department of Water Resources says it’s taking an “aggressive approach” with dam inspections and inundation maps.
“The Division of Safety of Dams is moving aggressively to reduce risks by inspecting dams and working with dam owners to meet the most rigorous standards in the nation and correct any deficiencies identified on an ongoing basis,” said Erin Mellon, Department of Water Resources spokesperson.
As for the Office of Emergency Services, it claims Howle “minimized” the interactive work that has been done to implement the dam safety laws, and said dam owners are mostly responsible for delays with the emergency plans.
The report “operates on the incorrect premise that emergency services has a backlog of emergency action plans,” according to Cal OES spokesperson Robb Mayberry.
“Emergency Services is committed to holding individual dam owners accountable for updating and maintaining emergency action plans that meet the highest standards to protect public safety,” Mayberry said in an email.
In addition to water infrastructure and dams, Howle’s report lists other high-risk problems California faces, including ongoing issues with the state prison health care system and a plagued $1 billion accounting software project.
According to the report, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Department – which has been a high-risk agency since 2007 – still struggles to provide adequate care to inmates more than a decade after a federal judge appointed a federal receiver to oversee its health care system. As of October 2019, the department was in control of just 19 out of 35 of its prisons.
If recent reports are any indication, CDCR will remain on Howle’s infamous list.
“According to the Office of the Inspector General, quality of care has declined in six institutions since its 2017 evaluation. Thus, CDCR has not made the significant improvements in the provision of inmate medical care necessary to remove it as a high-risk agency,” the audit states.
Howle does, however, credit the CDCR for implementing recommendations from a past audit that it focus on filling vacancies by improving its management succession program.
Building on a recent audit, Howle reiterated that the transition to the so-called FI$Cal accounting system is harming the state’s ability to conduct accurate financial reporting and could make it harder to borrow money.
After more than a decade of missteps and budgeting fiascos, the state has given an official June 2020 end date for work on a beleaguered information technology update.
“Since numerous state entities began implementing FI$Cal, they have struggled to submit timely data for the state’s annual financial statements, an issue that could ultimately limit the state’s ability to sell bonds without increased borrowing costs,” the audit states.