FERC AFTER ACTION PANEL: Oroville is still inciting dam safety changes nationwide

Posted in: Energy, Water


Photo taken by the California Department of Water Resources

For most of us, change is uncomfortable. It bugs me even when my cable company changes the look of our channel guide. When it comes to dam safety, however, it is vital that regulators take a hard look at guidelines in the wake of serious incidents and make changes to protect lives and property. Two years on, the Oroville spillway incident is still provoking changes to dam safety policies nationwide. A lot has been said about the changes to California regulations, but what about dams regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) nationwide?

FERC Panel Focus

FERC assembled an After-Action Panel to review Oroville Dam and safety elements regarding the dam owner’s program, as well as FERC’s own guidelines and processes. The panel focused on the service and emergency spillways, reviewed the Independent Forensic Team (IFT) report from January 2018, and made recommendations for dam safety at Oroville.

There are several design, construction and physical factors that contributed to the spillway incident determined by the FERC panel and the IFT. The IFT and FERC panel agree on most physical causes of the incident. However, FERC looked at why design and construction issues were not caught by decades of reporting and monitoring and how to prevent similar incidents moving forward.

Effectiveness of Current Dam Safety Activities

Leading up to the Oroville dam incident, critical documentation was lost, and monitoring data was omitted. FERC noted that what were meant to be safety programs had turned into compliance programs, and missing data and analyses remained unaddressed for decades because of this.

The FERC panel found fundamental issues with the Department of Water Resources’ organizational structure, record keeping, determinations made for maintenance activities, and the reliance on previous reports instead of critical engineering analysis.

Recommendations for Change

The panel noted that many of the issues at Oroville could have been caught with proper documentation, monitoring, analysis and reporting. Requirements for standardized supplemental technical information and creation of a new FERC dam safety engineering review board were amongst their recommendations for their own programs. Additionally, the panel stressed that all dam safety reporting should be based on engineering analyses, record keeping, and monitoring data, rather than relying on previous records.

What does this mean for dam owners and the public?

We all can expect changes in dam safety based on lessons learned from the Oroville spillway incident. Whether you are most affected by the California Division of Safety of Dams statutory changes or the changes the FERC panel is suggesting, it is important to remember that all changes are based on public safety. The Oroville incident could have ended tragically, but instead it provided us with an opportunity to analyze dam safety at the state and national levels. Because of these necessary changes, the people and communities protected by dams are safer.

Other Mead & Hunt articles about Oroville:

Oroville incident improves spillway safety across the nation

Surfing the waves of inundation mapping regulations

In the wake of Oroville incident, dam owners face new EAP requirements


Nancy Moricz

About the Author

Nancy Moricz, PE, CFM, is an experienced water resources engineer with a background in flood protection, planning, safety and project management. She has a broad knowledge of water resources, loves new challenges and considers herself a “huge people-person.” Nancy enjoys job diversity and working with a variety of clients to provide personal, accessible and specialized professional relationships centered around their specific needs.

Read more posts by Nancy Moricz

One response on “FERC AFTER ACTION PANEL: Oroville is still inciting dam safety changes nationwide

  1. Some years back I attended a 2- month workshop on dam safety assessment by BC Hydro in Burnaby BC. In this workshop they taught us the CDA pioneered dam safety assessments by the Consequence based approach in contrast to Incold endorsed Hazard based ones. Basically what I learnt was that the dams likely failure modes are identified and event trees for each failure constructed. Compleated algebraic formulations preceed calculation of odds for or agaist that type of failure occurring in that light advising the political class. Secondly, a strong public awareness must be built up for coping with such disasters and for reducing LOL. In this approach the engineer is supreme and he must be exteremely skilled one and he need not ‘mortgage’ his talent to hazard based codes/ CERC type guidelines et al. This approach lays great emphasis on intrumented surveillance of dam function and depends on good documentation for which very useful formats are provided. Needless to say ICOLD or USCOLD have not endorsed this rather innovative and cost reducing method, public safety being paramount and not the new idea. In the case of Auroville it is clearly bolting the stable door when the horse has bolted.

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