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Assembly holds oversight hearing following Oroville Dam forensic's report

Assembly holds oversight hearing following Oroville Dam forensic's report

The Assembly held its first oversight hearing on the Oroville Dam since the independent forensics team released its findings Wednesday. Legislatures put some pressure on the leaders of the Department of Water Resources, with the main focus on fixing the mistakes that were made.

In summary, the Assembly wanted the Department of Water Resources to take responsibility for the near catastrophe and said there were things that could've been done differently. They also wanted details on how that will be different moving forward.

"I'm really trying to understand what appears to be canaries in the coal mine that were ignored," said Assemblyman Jim Patterson to John France, the lead of the Independent Forensic's Team. He asked how no one saw this erosion coming.

France said reports that would've shown the problems with the geology were buried deep in the DWR's archives. "It was there, but you had to dig for it," France said. "There wasn't a flashing red light."

Much of the hearing at the state capitol Wednesday was legislatures asking the DWR to accept responsibility and detail the plan they have now to prove it won't happen again.

"Part of change is first admitting there's a problem," said Assemblyman James Gallagher in a Skype interview after the hearing. "And I didn't feel like I got a firm enough statement out of them that 'yes, they agree there's a dam safety culture problem at DWR."

DWR staff did say they're committed to implementing the recommendations from the forensic's report. They're still going through it and are figuring out a game plan for the future operations of their entire department.

"It is a very uncomfortable place, but I will say the silver lining of it is it will move us forward in terms of improvements and changes and enhancements, probably at a faster pace," said Cindy Messer, chief deputy director of the Department of Water Resources.

The report called the DWR overconfident and complacent, which isn't good news for the operations of the rest of the dams in the state.

"Are there other things going on out there we don't know about that you worry over?" asked Patterson to France. "I do," France responded. "Because the dam infrastructure is relatively old infrastructure, the average age of dams is 50 years or greater and a lot of our programs are not doing this deep dive into this information. So that's the worry."

During the hearing, the Assembly was told the DWR's director wasn't able to make it to the meeting at the last minute. Senator Jim Nielsen said as he walked back to his office, he found out that an entirely new director of DWR had been named, which didn't sit well with him.

"I walk back to the office and find that the director, who was said couldn't be there because of some kind of situation, is now gone!" Nielsen said. "Immediately replaced! What kind of confidence does that instill in anybody? I am talking to people who are supposed to represent the shot caller, the top person. So talk about another colossal breach of trust!"

Nielsen is calling for more thorough dam inspection protocols and wants them to be set in stone through legislature once they are. He also wants a committee made up of the public to talk about the issues related to the management of the dam with state and federal officials. The DWR said it would welcome that.

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