Sacramento — Part 2 of the State Water Resources Control Board’s Hearing on the WaterFix Water Right Change Petition (aka Delta tunnels) has been ongoing since February 22, 2018.  On March 14,15, and 16, 2018, the County of San Joaquin, the San Joaquin County Flood Control and Water Conservation District, Local Agencies of the North Delta, and the South and Central Delta Water Agencies presented testimony by a geotechnical engineer and the principal engineer for many of the Reclamation Districts in the Delta. The engineers testified on the inadequacy of the preliminary engineering for the Delta tunnels, and the resulting risks to the project, and to people and property in the Delta.

The engineers’ testimony showed that MWD and DWR have been dissembling about the Delta tunnels being a “fix” for a maximum earthquake in the Delta, as analyzed in the 2008 Delta Risk Management Strategy report. The Delta tunnels are not currently being designed to withstand a maximum earthquake in the Delta, as defined by the American Society of Civil Engineers and required by the California Building Code for above ground buildings and structures.  The expert testimony also raised very real concerns that inadequate structural design of the Delta tunnel lining could not only result in the Delta tunnel lining leaking in an earthquake, but actually increase the risks of the levees failing, if the problems with the current Conceptual Design of the Delta tunnels are not addressed.

1Effects of Maximum Considered Earthquake on blind fault in the Delta, according to Delta Risk Management Strategy

Fail to plan, plan to fail

Josef Tootle is the Principal Geotechnical Engineer with ENGEO Incorporated, and has 20 years of experience with projects in the Delta.  Tootle testified that the geotechnical borings done to date for the Delta tunnels are completely inadequate, even for the preliminary engineering. Tootle also testified that failing to have adequate geotechnical exploration could lead to delays in the project, needing to relocate the tunnel alignment, or, if the errors weren’t dealt with in the preliminary design, potential injury to life or property in the Delta if the tunnel lining failed due to seismic or structural stresses.

Josef Tootle’s concern about the impacts of the tunnel lining leaking under critical structures was corroborated by testimony of Chris Neudeck, principal at Kjelsen, Sinnock and Nuedeck. Neudeck is the the District engineer and Local Agency Representative for 26 of the Reclamation Districts in the Delta. Neudeck expressed concern not only for the impacts of tunnel lining leakage on the Delta levees, but also about risks of tunnel boring under the levees. Neudeck testified that the tunneling under the levees would need to be done very carefully and monitored very closely. But MWD and DWR have not set any standards for tunnel boring, deferring determination of allowable settlement and monitoring procedures to future engineering. Neudeck testified that DWR has never discussed risk management while tunneling under the levees with the Reclamation Districts.

Tom Williams, a PhD geologist who has consulted on tunnel and pipeline projects all over the world, raised similar concerns about the feasibility of the Delta tunnel conceptual design, and the risk to levees from the tunnel construction and operation in testimony in Part 1 of the WaterFix hearing.

Why DWR’s proposed mitigation may be meaningless

The “Avoidance and Mitigation Measures” in the WaterFix Final EIS/EIS state that DWR has committed to designing the Delta tunnels according to applicable codes and standards.   Chapter 9 of the WaterFix Final EIR/EIS, on Geology and Seismicity states: Regulatory Design Codes and Standards for Project Structures

State and federal design codes and standards will regulate construction of the many structures that are part of the proposed project. These codes and standards establish minimum design and construction requirements, including design and construction of concrete and steel structures, levees, tunnels, pipelines, canals, buildings, bridges and pumping stations. (p. 31.)

But cross-examination in the WaterFix Hearing showed that above ground building codes don’t necessarily apply to deep underground structures, and DWR’s own adopted standards include no objective criteria. Josef Tootle affirmed the following on cross-examination by California Water Research:

  1. Above ground buildings and structures in California are designed to withstand a “Maximum Considered Earthquake,” without collapsing.   A Maximum Considered Earthquake is defined by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) as an earthquake with a probability of 2% in 50 years, or 1 in 2,475 years.
  2. The ASCE standards may not apply to the tunnels.  (DWR’s attorneys previously claimed they do not.)
  3. DWR’s 2015 WaterFix Final Draft Conceptual Engineering Report shows the Delta tunnels are being designed to withstand a 5% in 50 year earthquake (1 in 1,000 years), which has weaker ground shaking than the Maximum Considered Earthquake.
  4. DWR’s 2010 internal, unreleased preliminary engineering report showed that the tunnel lining joints could “de-stress” in a 5% in 50 year earthquake, causing a temporary increase in leakage.

California Water Research asked Mr. Tootle if he was the Geotechnical engineer on a tunnel project, and the preliminary seismic structural analysis showed that tunnel joints could “de-stress” and leak in an earthquake, would he want to see further analysis?   He said yes. (The Delta tunnel Final Draft Conceptual Engineering Report does not disclose any seismic structural analysis, but states that MWD’s and DWR’s engineers are now assuming that seismic forces would fall off by 50% with depth. The assumption was contradicted by seismic data.)

DWR is promising to address the seismic issues with the Delta tunnels in future preliminary design, but is not proposing to release the future preliminary design documents for review by stakeholders. Instead, DWR is proposing to rely on “applicable codes and standards” to ensure that the tunnel lining has an adequate design.

But the standards listed in section include DWR’s Seismic Loading Criteria Report, issued by DWR in 2012.   The standards in DWR’s 2012 Seismic Loading Criteria report are no standards at all.  This is what the Seismic Loading Report has to say about pipelines and tunnels:

Section 3.2.2 Pipelines

Similar to SWP canals, little documentation exists regarding the seismic loading criteria used in the design of existing pipelines including the recently designed pipelines. DWR does not currently use any analytical model to predict the behavior of buried pipelines during earthquake occurrences. This is partly because earthquake loads may not be a concern for pipelines below the ground surface. Furthermore, AWWA manuals do not explicitly include seismic loading criteria for water pipelines. (p. 16.)

[note – Water supply pipelines DO fail in earthquakes.]

Section 3.2.3 Tunnels

The seismic loading criteria that were used in the design of existing SWP tunnels also have not been found. Many references, including the “Seismic Design of Tunnels – A Simple State-of-the-Art Design Approach” monograph (Jaw-Nan Wang and Parson Brinckerhoff, 1993) discuss the seismic loading criteria that could be used for tunnels. (p. 18)

Josef Tootle confirmed that these sections of the SLC report indicate that DWR could not locate seismic design criteria for any of the existing SWP pipelines or tunnels, and that the sections did not appear to set any criteria for the design of pipelines or tunnels. California Water research also cross-examined Josef Tootle about the foreward to DWR’s Seismic Loading Criteria report.  It states:

These guidelines are a suggested starting point, but do not take the place of the design engineer’s judgment and additional information available for a particular project site. Each design engineer should have the knowledge, experience, and insight into the importance of their facility to select the appropriate seismic design load and subsequently to apply that load in an appropriate manner to the structure. Similarly, this report does not prescribe the procedure or process of analyzing the structure. Again, this is design engineer’s responsibility to select the method of analyses that best suit the complexity, criticality, and importance of the facility. (p. 3)

Josef Tootle thought that the Seismic Loading Criteria report should set minimum standards, which it does not.   It is unclear what DWR’s commitment to build the Delta tunnels to “applicable codes and standards” actually means.  Given the failure by DWR set any clear, objective engineering criteria for the Delta tunnels, there a very real risk that cost-cutting by the water contractors who are paying for the project could compromise both long-term performance and public safety.

California Water Research has filed a Public Records Act request to the State Water Resources Control Board, requesting that the Board disclose Ex Parte communications with the Governor’s office and the Natural Resources Agency to the WaterFix Hearing parties.   Communications regarding the WaterFix hearing, or permit terms for the State Water Project and Central Valley Project, are requested.

California Water Research’s principal, Deirdre Des Jardins, stated, “the issue of providing increased flows to restore the Sacramento Delta estuary has become extremely politicized.  The Board’s WaterFix Water Right Change Petition hearing is a quasi-judicial process and there needs to be better transparency.”

California Water Research has also moved for a continuance of the WaterFix hearing until the documents are produced and any Ex Parte issues that are uncovered are resolved. The motion, filed in the WaterFix Hearing, states in part,

California Water Research recently ran across the February 11, 2016 Hearing Officers ruling that communications about any issues concerning the WaterFix” relevant to the Phase 2 update of the Bay-Delta planning process would be consistent with the Ex Parte rule:

We acknowledge the concerns raised by some of the parties regarding how application of the prohibition against ex parte communications in this proceeding could restrict otherwise permissible communications in the Bay-Delta planning process. At this time, it is not clear to what extent, if any, issues concerning the WaterFix will be relevant in the larger planning process. If this becomes a problem as Phase 2 progresses, the State Water Board will reach out to stakeholders and parties and determine the best way to allow any necessary open dialogue in the planning arena consistent with the ex parte rule applicable to the WaterFix hearing. (February 11, 2016 Hearing ruling, p. 5, underlining added.)

While the Phase 2 Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan update (“Phase 2 update”) is not considering the WaterFix, the Phase 2 update is considering amendment of the permits of the SWP and CVP, which has significant overlap with the Board’s consideration of adoption of “appropriate Delta flow criteria” in the WaterFix Water Right Change Petition hearing (“WaterFix hearing”.)

The State Water Resources Control Board has not, to date, reached out to WaterFix hearing parties and stakeholders to “determine the best way to allow any necessary open dialogue in the planning arena consistent with the ex parte rule applicable to the WaterFix hearing,” nor has the Board disclosed any Ex Parte communications regarding proposed permit terms for the SWP and CVP to the WaterFix hearing parties. Ex Parte issues regarding parallel processes should be addressed and resolved before the WaterFix hearing proceeds.

To allow WaterFix hearing parties the chance to resolve any Ex Parte issues that are uncovered, California Water Research hereby moves that the Hearing Officers continue the hearing until Ex Parte correspondence and documents in the attached document, “Public Records Act request for Ex Parte communications by other agencies” is produced. (This continuance motion is moot if the stay requested by Save the California Delta Alliance and Sacramento County et. al. is granted.)

Posted by: Deirdre Des Jardins | October 8, 2017

WaterFix tunnel lining could leak in a large earthquake in the Delta

The construction of two forty foot diameter tunnels in soft soils consisting of sedimentary layers of sand and peat is a significant engineering challenge. Given the large diameter of the tunnels, the amount of water they will be carrying, and the sedimentary deposits surrounding the tunnels, significant preliminary engineering is required to document that the proposed conceptual design will have sufficient structural integrity to protect the WaterFix tunnels, the water supply, and structures and people on the surface.

1 Sand and silt deposits go down 1,000s  of feet in the Delta     Source: Unruh 2009

California Water Research did an extensive review of the WaterFix tunnel design with Tom Williams, an expert who has consulted on large tunnel and pipeline projects around the world. An examination of DWR’s preliminary engineering documents showed not only that the preliminary engineering is insufficient, but also that cost-cutting could compromise both the lifetime of the WaterFix tunnels and their ability to withstand a large earthquake in the Delta. The Validation Complaint for the WaterFix also has a clause requiring the State Water Project Contractors to pay the WaterFix revenue bond costs whether or not the WaterFix project is completed or maintained in repair. (DWR 2017, p. 10.) This does not exactly inspire confidence.

Tunnel lining design

The WaterFix tunnel lining is proposed to be built out of large segmented concrete pipes. This segmented design, with no inner liner, was chosen on the basis of cost and time to construct, not on strength. (DWR 2010a, p. 9.)

Tunnel segments Source: DWR 2010

A preliminary engineering analysis by the Department of Water Resources showed that the tunnel lining joints could leak in a maximum earthquake in the Delta. (DWR 2010, p. 4-13. ) DWR’s engineers recommended that the option of a second steel liner be kept until the feasibility of the single-pass design was proven. (DWR 2010, p. 10-1. ) A second steel liner would significantly raise the cost of the tunnels and was not kept as an option. Instead the seismic source assumptions in the published WaterFix Conceptual Engineering Report were weakened to a 5% in 50 year event. (DWR 2015b, p. 31.) Seismic source assumptions for the liquefaction analysis were weakened to a 10% in 50 year event. (DWR 2015b, p. 49.) These weakened assumptions mean that the preliminary engineering does not even consider whether the WaterFix tunnels would be repairable after a maximum earthquake in the Delta.

Settlement could also cause the tunnel lining segments to move relative to one another, opening up gaps at the circumferential joints over time. This has caused a shortened expected lifetime for tunnels in deep sedimentary soils in Shanghai. (Xu et. al. 2011.)  Leaks also progressively increase the forces pulling the tunnel segments apart (Yoo 2016.)  The preliminary WaterFix tunnel design does not provide any criteria for maximum differential settlement of the tunnel segments under long term operations. East Bay MUD commented on the tunnel design in 2015, stating:

Long-term degradation of segmental concrete lining may result in failure of the lining. In the event that the tunnel lining fails and results in a tunnel collapse or blowout, a collapse during operations would result in major ground movement extending to the ground surface and potentially sinkholes or blowout.

This potential leakage is of particular concern where the tunnels pass under important structures, including Delta island levees and channels, the Stockton Deep Water Shipping Channel, the Mokelumne aqueduct, and natural gas and other product and services pipelines. Failure under a levee or channel could result in catastrophic flooding, endangering human life. The Final Draft WaterFix Conceptual Engineering Report does not indicate an inspection, monitoring, and remediation program and does not discuss contingencies, controls, and recovery following indication and evidence of leakage of the tunnel lining.

An honest assessment of the benefits of the WaterFix tunnels would disclose the vulnerability of the proposed tunnel lining design to settlement and seismic forces, and provide a long-term inspection, monitoring, and remediation plan for leakage and movement. An honest assessment would also analyze and disclose the expected time to repair the tunnel lining in a maximum earthquake.


Department of Water Resources, 2017, Complaint for Validation. Available at

Department of Water Resources, 2015a, Final Draft Agreement Regarding Construction of Conveyance Project between the Department Of Water Resources and the Conveyance Project Coordination Agency. Available at

Department of Water Resources, 2015b, Final Draft Conceptual Engineering Report for the Modified Pipeline/Tunnel Option (MPTO). Available at

Department of Water Resources, 2010, Draft Report Of the Initial Analysis & Optimization of the Pipeline/Tunnel Option. Available at

Unruh, Jeffrey, and Hitchcock, Christopher, 2009, Characterization of Potential Seismic Sources in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, California. Available at

Williams, Clyde Thomas, 2017, Testimony for WaterFix Change Petition Hearing. Available at

Yoo, Chungsik, 2016, Effect of water leakage in tunnel lining on structural performance of lining in subsea tunnels, Marine Georesources & Geotechnology Vol. 35 , Iss. 3.   Available at

Xu, Yeshuang & Ma, L & Shen, Shui-Long, 2011, Influential factors on development of land subsidence with process of urbanization in Shanghai. Yantu Lixue/Rock and Soil Mechanics. 32. 578-582. Available at

Posted by: Deirdre Des Jardins | June 26, 2017

WaterFix Dual Conveyance Operations Permit Deferred

Tunnel map

In a major change from the draft Biological Opinion, most of the Final Biological Opinion by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is programmatic only.   No Incidental Take Permit for operations of the State Water Project and Central Valley Project under Dual Conveyance has been issued. The cover letter does state that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has concluded that the project is unlikely to modify critical habitat.

DFW application status unclear

The change also makes the status of the application by the Department of Water Resources to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife for an Incidental Take Permit under the California Endangered Species Act is unclear, since that application relied on the proposed operations in the Draft Biological Assessment.

Much of the testimony for the WaterFix Change Petition assumed the proposed operations in the Draft Biological Assessment. The Department of Water Resources and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation had indicated in the WaterFix Change Petition hearing that the “H3+” operations scenario analyzed in the Biological Assessment was going to be close to the approved operations.

Many WaterFix actions need further analysis

This is from the cover letter by the US. FWS:

The following activities requiring future Federal approvals and therefore addressed programmatically are:

(1) construction of the NDD and associated structures;

(2) construction of the HORG;

(3) construction of the CCWD settlement agreement facilities;

(4) operations of new and existing CVP and SWP water facilities under dual conveyance;

(5) future maintenance;

(5) future monitoring; [duplicate number in letter]

(6) compensatory mitigation associated with construction of the NDD, HORG, and CCWD settlement agreement facilities; and

(7) the CWF Adaptive Management Program.


In order to ensure that future actions developed for the CWF are consistent with this analysis, Reclamation and DWR have proposed a framework consisting of Guiding Principles that are analyzed as part of this BiOp. One or more subsequent consultations will be needed to address activities associated with future approvals. No Incidental Take Statement is included for activities addressed programmatically because those subsequent consultations will address incidental take associated with those activities.

Construction related permits issued

The cover letter lists activities that were fully analyzed for the Biological Opinion. They are entirely construction related.

The following activities analyzed as a standard consultation are:

(1) construction of the tunnels;

(2) expansions and other modifications of Clifton Court Forebay;

(3) associated infrastructure;

(4) geotechnical explorations,

(5) compensatory mitigation associated with construction except the North Delta Diversions (NDD), Head of Old River Gate (HORG), and Contra Costa Water District (CCWD) settlement agreement facilities; and

(6) specific construction-related conservation measures including preconstruction surveys for listed terrestrial species.

The reasons for the change to a programmatic opinion for the long term operations of the WaterFix project unclear, but the change allows the Bureau of Reclamation significant latitude to change the proposed operations that were analyzed in the Draft Biological Opinion, and that were worked out with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service under the Obama administration.


Posted by: Deirdre Des Jardins | May 7, 2017

Full San Luis Endangers 200,000 people — more coverage

Alex Breitler of the Stockton Record published the results on his inquiry into safety issues with San Joaquin Valley dams:  The state of our dams.

In the article, Deirdre Des Jardins of California Water Research points out that people’s lives are being endangered by filling the seismically challenged San Luis reservoir.   The 2 million acre foot reservoir needs a restriction of at least 50 feet to be safe in a large earthquake.

Breitler quotes the Bureau of Reclamation as saying that a reservoir restriction at San Luis would “be a massive issue for water users.”   Presumably this includes the very, very, VERY sorry Department of Water Resources that has been publicly apologizing to Oroville residents.   The Bureau declined to disclose the probability of a large earthquake in the area.


San Luis Reservoir

Posted by: Deirdre Des Jardins | April 22, 2017

Scientific integrity in DWR’s engineering: sea level rise

The WaterFix tunnel design assumes 18 inches of sea level rise by Late Long Term (2065.)  All structures, including tunnel intakes, tunnel shafts, the Intermediate Forebay, and the new parts of Clifton Court Forebay are being designed to withstand sea level rise of 18 inches. Simulated operations also consider salinity intrusion with a maximum of 18 inches of sea level rise.   Simulations by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers show severe salinity intrusion with 1.68 meters (5.5 feet) of sea level rise, which could be reached by the end of this century.

Max salinity intrusion with 1.68 m sea level rise                U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

The Department of Water Resources’ assumptions about sea level rise date back to 2009. By 2013, when the first BDCP Draft Environmental Impact Report / Enviromental Impact Statement (EIR/EIS) came out, it was clear that the sea level rise estimates were obsolete. But the Department of Water Resources was reluctant to analyze higher values of sea level rise, stating in the Draft EIR/EIS that “the modeling analysis for BDCP had been designed and performed.” (Chapter 29, p. 13.)  Doing a new analysis would also have been quite expensive.

In a 2014 review, the Delta Independent Science Board was harshly critical:

The potential effects of climate change and sea-level rise are underestimated. . . . The potential direct effects of climate change and sea-level rise on the effectiveness of actions, including operations involving new water conveyance facilities, are not adequately considered. . . . We believe this is dangerously unrealistic.

DWR responded to the Delta ISB’s review, stating that “the scope of an EIR/EIS is to consider the effects of the project on the environment, and not the environment on the project.”

What could go wrong?

Jones Tract Flood 2004

Jones Tract Flood, 2004.      Source:  CA Water Blog

 The graph below shows projections of sea level rise by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and NOAA Climate Change Center, compared with the WaterFix tunnel design estimate of 18 inches, and the maximum operating range of 33 inches proposed under the new Delta plan amendments.  Under the high rate of sea level rise, the maximum operating range is exceeded around 2060-2070.

SLR w tunnels2

Sea level rise at Golden Gate — U.S. Army Corps and NOAA

Changing the sea level rise requirements in the Delta Reform Act

The Delta Reform Act required that the WaterFix EIR/EIS have a
comprehensive analysis of operations under sea level rise of up to 55 inches. (Section 85032(b)(2).)

The Delta Stewardship Council is proposing to amend the Delta Plan to only require that the EIR/EIS consider sea level rise of 20 inches at 2070, and the operations with up to 33 inches of by 2100.    These are derived from mean projections from the now obsolete 2012 report by the National Research Council.

The Department of Water Resources quietly disclosed the risks of underestimating sea level rise in a new paragraph in an unrelated chapter of the Final EIR/EIS:

• Underestimating sea level rise in the project design will result in harmful realized impacts such as flooding. Harmful impacts are more likely to occur if the project design is based upon a low projection of sea level rise and less likely if higher estimates of sea level rise are used. In situations with high consequences (high impacts and/or low adaptive capacity), using a low sea level rise value involves a higher degree of risk. (Examples of harmful impacts that might result from underestimating sea level rise include damage to infrastructure, contamination of water supplies due to saltwater intrusion, and inundation of marsh restoration projects located too low relative to the tides). (Chapter 9, section

The Ocean Protection Council’s Science Advisory Team Working Group just released a new risk report for sea level rise.    The highest sea level rise is projected for the highest greenhouse gas emissions.   For the current climate change models, possible scenarios are called “Representative Concentration Pathways.”   The highest Representative Concentration Pathway is RCP 8.5.    For the RCP 8.5 scenario, there is a 28% chance that sea level rise at the Golden Gate will exceed 3 feet by 2100, and an 8% chance it will exceed 4 feet.   Thus DWR’s use of sea level rise estimates of 18 inches for the WaterFix tunnels could result in a useful lifetime of less than 50 years for the project.

Sea level rise exceedance at the Golden Gate under highest GHG concentration pathway (RCP 8.5)

There is still significant uncertainty about catastrophic effects of climate change.    But these graphs show that using unrealistic assumptions for the $17 billion WaterFix project could result in severe and unanalyzed impacts on the project.


Griggs, G, Árvai, J, Cayan, D, DeConto, R, Fox, J, Fricker, HA, Kopp, RE, Tebaldi, C, Whiteman, EA (California Ocean Protection Council Science Advisory Team Working Group). Rising Seas in California: An Update on Sea-Level Rise Science. California Ocean Science Trust. 2017. Available at

National Research Council, Sea-Level Rise for the Coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington: Past, Present, and Future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. 2012. Available at

Parris, A., P. Bromirski, V. Burkett, D. Cayan, M. Culver, J. Hall, R. Horton, K. Knuuti, R. Moss, J. Obeysekera, A. Sallenger. Global Sea Level Rise Scenarios for the US National Climate Assessment. 2012. Available at

Sweet, W.V., R.E. Kopp, C.P. Weaver, J. Obeysekera, R.M. Horton, E.R. Thieler and CZ. NOAA Technical Report NOS CO-OPS 083, Global and Regional Sea Level Rise Scenarios for the United States. 2017. Available at

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Sea Level Change Calculator. 2015. Available at

Delta Independent Science Board, Review of the Draft EIR/EIS for the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. 2014. Available at

Bay Delta Conservation Plan Public Draft EIR/EIS, Chapter 29 — Climate Change. 2013. Available at

WaterFix Final EIR/EIS, Volume IChapter 9 – Geology and Seismicity. 2016. Available at

California Water Research, Comments on Water Supply and Water Quality Modelling in the WaterFix RDEIR/SDEIS. 2015. Available at

Chris Clarke, New Sea Level Rise Study Calls Delta Tunnels Into Doubt, KCET. April 2016. Available at

Posted by: Deirdre Des Jardins | April 21, 2017

San Luis Dam seismic upgrade to cost $600-700 million

031217_2104_FullSanLuis1.jpgValley Public Radio ran a segment on San Luis Reservoir endangering 200,000 people in the San Joaquin Valley on Tuesday, April 18.  Ezra David Romero interviews Deirdre Des Jardins of California Water Research and Ron Stork of Friends of the River as well as the Bureau of Reclamation’s Dam Safety Office. The Bureau spokesperson said the seismic remediation and raise of San Luis Dam is estimated to cost $600-700 million.

Valley Edition: April 18

Together with the Oroville spillway repair, costing at least $275 million, there is now an estimated total of almost $1 billion for public safety upgrades to Oroville dam and San Luis dam. And it’s not just the State Water Project’s two huge dams. The original State Water Project power plant and pumping plant equipment is also near the end of its estimated useful lifetime.

Table of SWP facility lifetimes.    2016 SWRDS financial statement

hyatt turbine

Hyatt Turbine Replacement 

There are real questions about whether the Department of Water Resources has budgeted for needed upgrades of its aging facilities. California Water Research dug up DWR’s projected capital and operating costs for the original State Water Project facilities and produced some graphs.

The original State Water Project facilities include the Upper Feather, Oroville, Delta, and Suisun Marsh facilities, as well as San Luis Dam and the California Aqueduct to Dos Amigos.   The projected capital costs for these facilities are so low that it appears that the cost projections assume no major repairs. What about operating costs? Those are also projected to grow more slowly than the 2.75% rate of inflation.

Annual capital costs for last 30 years from Bulletin 132-16, Table B-13

Projected capital costs from Bulletin 132-16, Table B-13

Projected Operating Costs from Bulletin 132-16, Table B-13

Posted by: Deirdre Des Jardins | April 9, 2017

Spillway failure is third serious incident at Oroville-Thermalito complex

The failure of the lower part of the Oroville main spillway is the third serious incident at the Oroville-Thermalito complex. The causes of the incidents were all related to conditions previously noticed as safety violations by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s Division of Dam Safety and Inspections.   The three incidents indicate serious maintenance issues at the Oroville facilities.

In 2007, a site inspection by John Onderdonk, chief of FERC’s San Francisco Regional Office of Dam Safety and Inspections, found three safety violations related to the later incidents. These were the items in Onderdonk’s letter to DWR:


  1. The bolts and nuts that secure the river valves to the pipe flanges were observed to be rusty. This item was also on the 2006 follow-up letter and your plan and schedule calls for the repair to be finished by November 2, 2007. […]

8. Small areas of spalling damage of the concrete on the floor of the spillway were noted during the inspection. By December 3, 2007, please provide a plan and schedule to repair areas on the spillway where the concrete has been damaged.

9. During the inspection, Mr. Onderdonk inquired when the last time that the spillway drainage system has been cleaned out and he was informed that it has been many years. There are a series of vertical clean outs located on each side of the service spillway. By December 3, 2007, please provide a plan and schedule to clean out the spillway drains.


  1. A five-gallon container of oil was found on the floor in the powerplant. By December 3, 2007, please provide a plan and schedule to remove the oil container or provide secondary containment for the container.  […]

These safety violations presaged 3 serious incidents:

  1. In 2010, five workers were injured in the river tunnels when a 6′ tall, 10′ wide steel panel with rusted bolts flew off during a test.
  2. In 2012, a fire destroyed the Thermalito Power Plant, caused by a relay short-circuit and an unknown source of fuel.
  3. In 2017, the main spillway developed a large crater.

Details of Incidents

  1. Rusty bolts in river tunnels

In July 2009, during a test of the river tunnels, a large steel panel flew off during a test in the river tunnels injuring five workers, one seriously.  As reported by Toni Scott in the Chico Enterprise-Record, the cause was corroded bolts:

Shortly after the valves were opened, a 6-foot-tall, 10-foot-wide steel panel near the employees collapsed, sending flying debris toward the workers and creating a vacuum-like force that pulled them toward a tunnel carrying water out of the dam.

The investigation also found that DWR failed to properly maintain the collapsed steel panel, finding that the bolts securing the non-structural panel to the wall were corroded and that the panel “was never inspected for integrity or safety for over 40 years.”

A foam sealant had been placed where the bolts had corroded, “indicat(ing) knowledge of corrosion and failure of the bolts and the seal of the door,” the report reads.

2. Five gallon container of oil on floor of powerplant

In 2012, the Thermalito Pumping Plant has a major fire. According to a presentation by DWR’s staff to an engineering conference, the fire cost an estimated $90 million in cleanup and $75 million in repairs.


The results of the forensic investigation of the cause of the fire were reported in The investigation determined that a short-circuit in a relay was responsible, but lab controlled experiments were unable to recreate the ignition. The relay engineers said there were two possible additional causes:

  • An unknown source of fuel was available that could be and was ignited; and
  • The actual circuit No. 19 fault produced far more thermal energy than was generated during testing.

Forensic expert Mark Schafer, of Electro-Mechanical Recertifiers, also identified other contributing factors, including: aged cables, mixed voltages and over-stacked cables in the cable trays, a lack of fire stops between elevations, an inoperable dry chemical fire extinguisher cart, and combustible materials such as plant schematics and additional historical items printed on large paper sheets stored within the plant.

Two months before the fire, Mark Cowin, the Director of the Department of Water Resources had told the Metropolitan Water District Board that DWR no longer had the appropriate financial resources to operate and maintain the aging SWP facilities.

According to the State Water Project financial statements, the life of the equipment in the State Water Project power plants and pumping plants is 30-50 years.  The Thermalito pumping plant will be 50 years old in 2019.

lifetime table

3. Spalling damage to spillway chute and drains not cleaned out

FERC’s San Francisco office of Dam Safety and Inspections had to remind the Department of Water Resources in August 2008 that the repairs for the main spillway chute were needed.

An investigation by DWR in 2008 of the main spillway chute showed that the concrete surface had more extensive damage than just the “small areas of spalling” noticed by John Onderdonk in 2007.  The bid summary in 2009 shows that the main spillway chute needed 10,000 linear feet of sawcutting one inch deep, and 83 cubic yards of void repair. The chute also needed 3,900 linear feet of major crack repair, as well as 23,700 linear feet of contraction joint repair.

Although the letter from FERC requested Department of Water Resources to submit a followup report on the main spillway chute repair, California Water Research could not locate any report about the repair in DWR’s public FERC filings.  As previously reported by California Water Research, the Bureau of Reclamation’s Guide to Concrete Repair recommends investigation of the causes of cracks in concrete hydraulic structures.

This post was updated on April 10, 2015 to include information about the expected lifetime of facilities.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) defines High Hazard dams as “those [dams] where failure or mis-operation will probably cause loss of human life.” The current industry standard is to have Emergency Action Plans for all High Hazard dams, but California does not give the Division of Safety of Dams the authority to require dam owners to prepare one.

According to a report from FEMA’s National Dam Safety Program, only ten states do not give their dam safety agencies the authority to require Emergency Action Plans: Alabama, California, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, North Carolina, Vermont, and Wyoming.  The map below, from the FEMA report, shows those states in gray.

The map also shows the percentage of high hazard dams that had Emergency Action Plans. In 2013, only 45% of High Hazard dams in California had Emergency Action Plans. California has some of the largest dams in the country, and major earthquake risks.

1 Percentage of State-regulated High Hazard dams with Emergency Action Plans         Source: FEMA


Federal Emergency Management Agency, “Federal Guidelines for Dam Safety: Hazard Potential Classification System for Dams,” April 2004.   Available at

Federal Emergency Management Agency, “Dam Safety in the United States:  A Progress Report on the National Dam Safety Program,” August 2014.  Available at

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, “National Inventory of Dams database.”  Available at

The California Department of Water Resources owns three smaller dams upstream of Oroville, including two on tributaries of the Middle Fork of the Feather River, and one on a tributary of the North Fork of the Feather River.  Records show that all three upstream dams had extensive spillway repairs in 2009, at the same time that the Oroville main spillway had extensive repairs.  The repairs for all three spillways included sawcutting concrete, void repairs, and repairs of major cracks. Frenchman Dam also had repairs of the spillway lip. Records show the three dams were last inspected in October of 2014.

Two of the dams, Grizzly Valley and Frenchman, began spilling last week, according to news reports. There are a number of small communities on tributaries and the Middle Fork of the Feather River that could be inundated if the dams had major spillway erosion. The U.S. Army Corps’ National Inventory of Dams Database shows no Emergency Action Plan for any of the dams, although all appear to meet the definition of High Hazard dams, because failure could result in loss of life. The State of California does not require Emergency Action Plans for High Hazard dams, and the dams are not supervised by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Frenchman Dam, at the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Feather River, is on Little Last Chance Creek. Little Last Chance Creek flows down past the small community of Chilcoot-Vinton (population 457) into the Sierra Valley, where it joins with other tributaries to form the beginning of the Middle Fork of the Feather River. Frenchman Dam is 139 feet tall and impounds Frenchman Lake, up to 55,477 acre-feet of water.

1 Frenchman Lake and Lake Davis                                 Source: Google Earth

Further downstream, just north of the City of Portola (population 2,100), Big Grizzly Creek joins the Middle Fork of the Feather River. Grizzly Valley Dam, on Big Grizzly Creek, is 115 feet tall and impounds Lake Davis, up to 83,000 acre-feet of Water. Numerous other communities are on the Middle Fork of the Feather River downstream of the City of Portola including Deleker, population 700, Mabie, population 161, Iron Horse, population 297, Graeagle, population 737, and Cromberg, population 261.

2 City of Portola, California

DWR’s third dam is Antelope Dam, on Indian Creek, a tributary of the North Fork of the Feather River, in Plumas National Forest. Antelope is 113 feet tall and holds 22,566 acre-feet of water. The small community of Taylorsville (population 150) is on Indian Creek below Antelope Dam.

3 Antelope Lake                              Source: Google Earth

Grizzly Valley Dam, which impounds Lake Davis, began spilling last week, as did Frenchman.

On September 14, 2009, the Department of Water Resources published a notice soliciting bids  for repairs of the concrete chute on the main Oroville spillway , as well as for repairs of the spillway chutes of Grizzly Valley, Frenchman, and Antelope Dams.  DWR also published a summary of received bids, which showed that the Antelope Dam spillway had 1,790 linear feet of sawcutting and 47 cubic feet of void repair, as well as 100 linear feet of major crack repair and 200 linear feet of subdrain repair. The Frenchman Dam spillway had 713 linear feet of sawcutting and 100 linear feet of major crack repair. Grizzly Valley Dam had 40 linear feet of sawcutting and 40 linear feet of major crack repair.

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