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Environment

Despite Oroville Crisis, California Has The 'Cadillac' Of State Dam Safety Programs

This aerial photo released by the California Department of Water Resources shows the damaged spillway with eroded hillside in Oroville, Calif., Feb. 11, 2017.
William Croyle / California Department of Water Resources via AP
This aerial photo released by the California Department of Water Resources shows the damaged spillway with eroded hillside in Oroville, Calif., Feb. 11, 2017.

The state of California missed one of its two annual Oroville Dam inspections last year. It has one field engineer for every 57 dams it must inspect. And there is a potential conflict of interest in how the state inspects dams.

Yet despite those concerns, California’s dam safety inspection program — which is drawing increased scrutiny after last weekend’s Oroville Dam crisis — is considered the best in the nation.

“Everybody is understaffed and underfunded,“ said Lori Spragens, who runs the Association of State Dam Safety Officials. “Every other state is more understaffed and underfunded.”

She said other states look to California.

“They are actually what we consider the Cadillac version of a state dam safety program.”

RELATED: Oroville Dam Emergency Puts California Dams In The Spotlight

You might think it is a heavy workload for 22 field engineers to inspect 1,250 dams. But Oklahoma, which has more than 4,600 dams, spent less than $200,000 on dam safety as of a few years ago. California spends $13 million.

“They obviously have some areas that probably need some improvement, including some of their emergency action planning procedures,“ Spragens said. “But as far as technical abilities as dam safety engineers, inspectors, they are definitely excellent.”

Of course, because California assesses fees on dam owners to fund inspections, and because the state Department of Water Resources owns Oroville and several dozen other dams, the state is charging — and inspecting — itself.

But Bruce Blanning, who runs the union that represents the dam inspectors, said there is no conflict of interest.

“I’ve never heard any concerns from our members that Oroville or any other facility wasn’t being inspected as often or as thoroughly as it should be,” said Blanning, the executive director of Professional Engineers in California Government.

Nevertheless, the Department of Water Resources only inspected Oroville once last year; it was supposed to be inspected twice.

A Democratic assemblyman has just introduced a bill that would require closer inspections of dam spillways.