OROVILLE, Calif.—A huge Northern California reservoir, held in place by a massive dam, has always been central to the life of the towns around it.
Now the lake that has brought them holiday fireworks and salmon festivals could bring disaster.
Nearly 200,000 people, who evacuated Sunday over fears that a damaged spillway at Lake Oroville could fail and unleash a wall of water, have to stay away indefinitely while officials race to repair it before more rains arrive Thursday.
Evacuees felt strange on Monday to see their beloved lake associated with urgent voices on the national news.
“Never in our lives did we think anything like this would have happened,” said Brannan Ramirez, who has lived in Oroville, a town of about 16,000 people, for about five years.
The gold-rush town in the Sierra Nevada foothills some 70 miles northeast of Sacramento is nestled near the foot of the dam, which at 770 feet is the nation’s largest. Houses and churches are perched on tree-lined streets near the Feather River. Old, ornate Victorian homes sit alongside smaller bungalows.
“Everybody knows to go there for the Fourth of July,” evacuee Crystal Roberts-Lynch said of the lake. “Then there’s festivals wrapped around the salmon run.” The mother of three, who has lived in Oroville for 10 years, was staying at a Red Cross evacuation center in Chico.
Local businesses, including one that sells supplies for gold-panning, dominate a downtown area that spans several blocks. A wide range of chain stores sit a short distance away along the main highway.
“The lake brings in an enormous part of the economy for the town. It definitely is a people-catcher,” said Brannan Ramirez, who has lived in Oroville for about five years. “We get people from all over the country.”
Cities and towns further down the Feather River also are in danger.
Yuba City, population 65,000, is the biggest city evacuated. The city has the largest dried-fruit processing plant in the world and one of the largest populations of Sikhs outside of India.
The region is largely rural and its politics dominated by rice growers and other agricultural interests, including orchard operators. The region is dogged by the high unemployment rates endemic to farming communities. There are large pockets of poverty and swaths of sparsely populated forests, popular with anglers, campers and backpackers.
For now, it’s all at the mercy of the reservoir that usually sustains it, and provides water for much of the state.
“If anything, we would have thought that the dam would have been constructed better,” Ramirez said.
Ramirez said it was “extremely frustrating” when he heard reports that emerged Monday of complaints about the potential danger that came from environmentalists and government officials a dozen years ago.
Those warnings described the very scenario that was threatening to unfold, though they were dismissed state and federal regulators who expressed confidence that the dam and its spillways could withstand serious storms.
The acting head of the state’s Department of Water Resources said he was unaware of the 2005 report that recommended reinforcing with concrete an earthen spillway that is now eroding.
“I’m not sure anything went wrong,” Bill Croyle said. “This was a new, never-having-happened-before event.”
Roberts-Lynch didn’t buy the explanations.
“I know that somebody did not pay attention to the warning signs,” she said. “Someone in charge was not paying attention. It was their job to pay attention to what was going on with the dam.”
Over the weekend, the swollen lake spilled down the unpaved, emergency spillway, which had never been used before, for nearly 40 hours, leaving it badly eroded and with a huge hole caused by a chunk of concrete.
On Monday, helicopters and trucks were trying to fill in the damaged area with giant bags full of rocks. The water level was slowly dropping and the amounts being discharged at the main spillway are the same as are normally released this time of year.
Officials were also defending the decision to suddenly call for mass evacuations late Sunday afternoon, just a few hours after saying the situation was stable, forcing families to rush to pack up and get out.
“There was a lot of traffic. It was chaos,” said Robert Brabant, an Oroville resident who evacuated with his wife, son, dogs and cats. “It was a lot of accidents. It was like people weren’t paying attention to other people.”
Gov. Jerry Brown said Monday that he sent a letter to the White House requesting direct federal assistance in the emergency, though some federal agencies have been helping already.
Brown has had harsh words for President Donald Trump, and the state has vowed to resist many of his administration’s efforts.
But the governor said at a news conference that he’s “sure that California and Washington will work in a constructive way. That’s my attitude. There will be different points of view, but we’re all one America.”
The governor said he doesn’t plan to go to Oroville and distract from efforts, but he tried to reassure evacuees.
“My message is that we’re doing everything we can to get this dam in shape and they can return and they can live safely without fear,” Brown said.
But evacuee Kelly Remocal said she believed the public officials working on the problem are “downplaying everything so people don’t freak out.”
“I honestly don’t think they’re going to be able to do it, fix the problem,” she said. “This requires a little more than a Band-Aid. At this point they have no choice but to give it a Band-Aid fix.”