Obama Stimulus Funds Went to California Dam in ‘Good Shape,’ But Not Oroville

California received $34.5 billion from the stimulus (Updated)

Oroville Dam
Water gushes down the Oroville Dam's main spillway / AP
February 16, 2017

The 2009 stimulus package funded millions of dollars for safety improvements for a dam in California that was in "good shape," but not to the Oroville Dam that is now on the verge of a spillway crisis.

Nearly 200,000 residents north of Sacramento were ordered to evacuate after fears that erosion would cause the emergency spillway to fail, which would lead to "catastrophic flooding" from a 30-foot wall of water.

Despite more than a decade of warnings about Oroville, there is no public record of the country’s tallest dam receiving any of the more than $34 billion from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act sent to California for infrastructure projects.

Over $22 million in stimulus funds did go toward safety improvements to the Folsom Dam, which was described as in "good shape" at the time the grant was awarded in 2009.

"The dam is in good shape but is starting to show its age," a Bureau of Reclamation spokesperson said of the Folsom Dam at the time.

The stimulus was intended to "shore up the nation’s aging infrastructure," said Rep. Mike Thompson, a Democrat who served California’s 1st District before being redistricted to the 5th.

Stimulus projects awarded to the state included $2.2 million for "more attractive" sidewalks and $2.5 million for a 205-acre "zero net energy" community on the University of California Davis campus to put a greater "emphasis on walking" and bicycling.

Warnings about the Oroville Dam have persisted for decades. The dam came within one foot of overflowing in 1997, and three environmental groups unsuccessfully attempted to force the federal government in 2005 to reinforce the emergency spillway with concrete, instead of the "earthen hillside" that is receiving round-the-clock attention to keep from failing.

The California Department of Water Resources denied that it had failed to heed concerns about the emergency spillway.

"We have a very rigorous schedule of inspections that is determined by state and federal regulators," said spokesman Eric See. "We actually do those inspections annually."

The department did not respond to request for comment about the Folsom Dam receiving stimulus funding, but not the Oroville Dam, or whether state officials applied for grants for Oroville under the stimulus.

Gov. Jerry Brown asked for roughly $162 million for cleanup from flooding, and cost estimates to repair the Oroville Dam’s emergency spillway could run as high as $200 million. President Donald Trump approved an emergency declaration order for California Tuesday evening, which authorizes the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide assistance.

Gov. Brown’s list outlining priority infrastructure projects for the state his office released just last week also included funding for Folsom, but not Oroville.

The emergency evacuation order that affected 188,000 residents was lifted Tuesday, but over 125 construction crews are still working to reinforce the spillways as more rainstorms are forecasted this week.

UPDATE 1:53 P.M.: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Rep. Mike Thompson represented the 1st District where the Oroville Dam is located. At the time, the 1st District did not include Butte County or the Oroville Dam. As a result of redistricting, the dam is now located in the 1st District, represented by Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R.). We regret the error.  

Published under: Government Spending