High Water and High Drama as North State Dam Operators Deal with an Extra Wet Winter

Operators opened 10 river outlets on Shasta Dam's spillway for the first time in more than 15 years. Photos and video by Jon Lewis.

Operators opened 10 river outlets on Shasta Dam’s spillway for the first time in more than 15 years. Photos and video by Jon Lewis.

In the end, the water always finds a way to win.

Regardless of what stands in its way, it will find its way back to the ocean. And sometimes, like it has in the past few weeks, it decides to return all at once—and in a hurry.

Man-made barriers—most notably Shasta Dam—put up a good fight, but even they must yield on occasion. Last weekend was one such occasion. With Shasta Lake filled to 92 percent of its enormous capacity and six feet from its brim, and a welcome stretch of mild weather in the forecast, dam operators opened wide the spigots and loosed 70,000 CFS (cubic feet per second) into the already-swollen Sacramento River.

The high releases, which started at 50,000 CFS on Friday and ramped their way from there, promptly led to the closure of Park Marina Drive near the Cypress Bridge. The engorged river spread out over large sections of the Sacramento River Trail and generated considerable excitement among thousands of sight-seers who flocked to Shasta Dam, the Sundial Bridge and several points in between.

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The central portion of Park Marina Drive just south of South Street was under water Sunday after a release of water from Shasta Dam earlier that day. Photos by Doni Chamberlain

Park Marina Drive flooded Sunday after releases from Shasta Dam that morning. Video by Doni Chamberlain.

The scene was much more serious in Oroville on Sunday as the Butte County Sheriff ordered a wide-scale evacuation of the city and neighboring communities in response to concerns that Oroville Dam’s emergency spillway would fail and send a wall of water crashing into the Feather River and cause widespread flooding.

The auxiliary spillway, located west of the massive earthen dam, was pressed into action Saturday for the first time in the dam’s 48-year history. Department of Water Resources operators cranked up releases through the principal, but heavily damaged, spillway in an effort to lower the lake level as growing evidence of erosion on the emergency spillway raised concerns.

As some 130,000 people clogged highways and streets in an effort to evacuate, DWR officials announced at 8:45 p.m. Sunday that water had stopped going over the emergency spillway. The evacuation order remains in effect until 4:15 p.m. Monday at the earliest. DWR officials have repeatedly stated that Oroville Dam itself is not in danger of failing.

For evacuation information, Butte County residents can dial 2-1-1 from landline and cell phones; Yuba or Sutter County residents can call 1-866-916-3566.

DWR contractors plan to use helicopters to drop large rocks into the damaged sections of the emergency spillway to stabilize them.

The excitement levels were especially high at Shasta Dam as people gathered to admire the rare view of water rocketing through 10 river outlets high up on the 487-foot tall spillway. Sheri Harral, a public affairs specialist for the Bureau of Reclamation, said it had been at least 15 years since dam operators had opened 10 outlets.

Sunday's bright sun brought out water-watchers in droves.

Sunday’s bright sun brought out water-watchers in droves.

“We’re just getting some water out of the reservoir while we have some clear skies,” Harral said on Friday, noting the forecast calls for another storm to roll in by the middle of the week. “There will be some areas downstream that are going to get wet, but it would be a gazillion times worse if the dam wasn’t here.”

A rainbow appeared on Friday to brighten the mood.

A rainbow appeared on Friday to brighten the mood.

In fact, she said the flood-control releases can be viewed as evidence in support of the now-stalled proposal to raise Shasta Dam at additional 18.5 feet. “This is kind of a plug for when people say ‘why in the world are you guys pushing to raise the dam when you can’t even fill it up.”

Water roars out of Shasta Dam at 70,000 cubic feet per second.

Water roars out of Shasta Dam at 70,000 cubic feet per second.

A feasibility report released in 2015 indicates the cost to raise the height of the dam would be $1.3 billion. It would create an additional 636,000 acre-feet of storage. The project is opposed by the Winnemen Wintu people, who say it flood most of the tribe’s remaining sacred sites along the McCloud River.

Meanwhile, dam operators are scrambling to bring the lake into mandated compliance with Army Corps of Engineers guidelines on lake levels. Those guidelines are based on rainfall averages, flooding thresholds for the river and downstream communities, energy demands and agricultural needs.

“We’re 37 feet higher than we should be and almost 100,000 acre-feet encroached (or above the level required by the guidelines). We’ve gotten 71 inches of rain at the dam and our average is 62. This is all great, but when it comes all at once, that’s what can cause problems. We can only hold so much,” Harral said.

When full, Shasta Lake holds 4.5 million acre-feet of water—the equivalent of 19 Whiskeytown Lakes, or enough to fill 2.25 million Olympic-sized swimming pools—making it California’s largest reservoir and the cornerstone of the Central Valley Project. An acre-foot equals 325,851 gallons of water.

In response to the flood-control releases, Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko closed the Sacramento River to recreational use and boating.

More water is on the way: the National Weather Service forecast for the north state calls for rain on Wednesday and Thursday and moderate rain and showers continuing for the next seven days.

Jon Lewis
Jon Lewis is a freelance writer living in Redding. He has more than 30 years experience writing for newspapers and magazines. Contact him at jonpaullewis@gmail.com.
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13 Responses

  1. Frank Treadway says:

    I hear conflicting reports about the situation at Oroville Dam.  Having folks evacuate in the middle of the night seems to be poor planning, when it could have been done during daylight hours.  The CA National Guard is currently on alert, but should be actually activated to protect the vacant homes/property.  There are several National Guard company’s in Shasta & Tehama counties that are Engineer Company’s and  should be in place and ready for any further emergency, not just on alert. I suggest Shasta Dam spokespersons show in detail the effects raising the dam 18′ will help the surrounding area or the rest of the state.  If the water comes close to the top every 15 years where’s the need for raising the dam.  Yes, it would provide good paying jobs, but at what price to the indigenous tribes and the current land owners around the lake.  Not to mention Sites Reservoir will be in place within 10 years.  Water continues to be the New Gold.

  2. A. Jacoby says:

    Well, they didn’t evacuate in the middle of the night. The order went out around 6:00 p.m.. Early reports of looting proved to be incorrect and the report was that everyone was orderly and courteous and helpful. Yes, if the erosion had been in evidence in the morning it would have been nice, but Mother Nature doesn’t always bend herself to our convenience. I concur with the powers that be, “Better safe than sorry.”

  3. Common Sense says:

    Well a couple things are clear…..this has the Potential to be a Huge Catastrophy!…..I don’t like the Dam Contractor’s headline…..I find it misleading…..but he is someone that knows a LOT more about all this than I do….


    Now onto the Discussions 12 years ago……not down toward the bottom of this article……obviously, no know really Believed that they would ever need to use that Emergency Spillway!


  4. Debra Atlas says:


    Glad to know that Shasta Dam is in good shape. But it seems pretty logical that any dam who’s spillways haven’t been used for a decade or more would need to be inspected prior to releasing such torrents of water. Safety should always be first, not expediency, don’t you think?

    Anything else is simply ignorance, or arrogance.

    Keep up the great work you do!

    • K. Beck says:

      Seems to me they should have regular maintenance checks! They wouldn’t have had to use the emergency spill way if the “real” spillway had not fallen apart. Two failures within days of each other. Not Acceptable!

  5. Jon Lewis says:

    An aerial view, provided Monday morning by KCRA-TV, shows just how dinged up the emergency spillway is and what’s being done to shore it up. It looks like it is still very dicey: http://www.kcra.com/article/see-how-much-damage-was-done-to-oroville-emergency-spillway/8761384

  6. K. Beck says:

    Poor planning? I believe the Oroville dam emergency overflow spillway  did not show damage until the early evening. Whatever time it was, it was already getting dark. In the 45 years since the dam was built it had never been used! Evacuating when they did was a good decision. Last night (this was well before 10 PM, if I recall correctly) Brown sent in state emergency workers. The National Guard was called in (and were physically in Oroville last night) as were numerous CHP officers from Northern CA and the Sacramento area. The CHP took over guarding the cities. The National Guard were bringing in helicopters and airplanes for support. And they are to help fix the overflow spillway. All in all, I think this was handled extremely well. Can’t remember EVER saying that about a government operation in my whole life! I was actually impressed. Don’t know where you are getting your information, Frank.

    One news report last night said they evacuated 188,000 people!

  7. Jon Lewis says:

    I’m going to try that link again: http://www.kcra.com/article/see-how-much-damage-was-done-to-oroville-emergency-spillway/8761384

  8. K. Beck says:

    Jon, thanks for the great coverage. I was glued to the two N. State TV stations last night. They did a great job of keeping everyone informed. Thanks to them, and the folks here at ANC for all the great links!

  9. cheyenne says:

    What is happening, even us conservatives have to agree, is Earth is getting warmer and moisture that used to fall in the mountains as snow is falling as rain.  It is not only in California but here in the Rockies the same thing is happening with flooding from rain/melting snow.  It is but ten days into February and historically this is when the big snowstorms hit that dump big amounts of snow all over the West.  If those big snow storms turn out to be gulley washers the whole west will see serious flooding problems.  Blaming someone, or a certain party, will not solve the problems.  Here in Wyoming Governor Mead has proposed building ten dams in ten years to capture the excess runoff.  He proposed that two years ago, maybe now they will realize that it needs to be done.  Most dams, including Shasta Dam, were built to control flooding.

  10. Sally says:

    One can’t help but feel sorry for the 188,000 people ordered to evacuate!!!  I was watching the Grammys for a short time, but local stations covered the Oroville crisis.  Watching Entertainment Tonight (KRCR), this evening they showed much of anything we wanted to see.  How can the female dresses get any lower in the chest area without going nude?!  And yes Jon – as always thanks for being our roving reporter!!  Always well done.

  11. Liz A. says:

    In Jon’s picture of Shasta dam, there seem to be a lot more dark damp looking places showing on its face than usual.   Must be expected or I suppose someone would make an issue of it……

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