State officials say the Federal Emergency Management Agency has approved another $205 million in reimbursement for the Oroville Dam reconstruction project, as the parties work to resolve lingering questions about how much of the work is eligible for repayment.
The funds are in addition to the $128.4 million that California's Department of Water Resources received last year as repayment for emergency response, debris removal and other costs, according to a news release posted Friday.
The latest reimbursement is based on cost estimates provided by DWR last summer as crews were in their second year of rebuilding the dam's spillways after they nearly failed during a series of major storms in February 2017. The project's overall cost is estimated at $1.1 billion.
But FEMA officials also told the state they don't consider some spillway reconstruction to be eligible for reimbursement based on information the DWR provided. The DWR disagrees, and will send more information to support its assertion that all construction work should be eligible.
'Work was necessary'
"“We appreciate the hard work and commitment of FEMA staff, however are disappointed in some of their initial interpretations regarding cost eligibility,” Joel Ledesma, DWR Deputy Director of the State Water Project, says in the release. “Our reconstruction work was necessary to safely operate the main spillway and ensure functionality of the emergency spillway. DWR plans to appeal FEMA’s determination as we believe all costs should be eligible for federal reimbursement.”
Erin Mellon, the DWR's assistant public affairs director, could not immediately be reached for comment.
FEMA funding for the project has been in question since U.S. Reps. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., and John Garamendi, D-Calif., said last spring that agency officials told them an unfavorable independent review of the DWR’s management of the dam may jeopardize federal reimbursement for the dam’s reconstruction.
A forensic team commissioned to study the dam’s near-failure issued a 584-page report in early 2018 that largely blames a culture of complacency within the DWR that insulated the agency from access to industry knowledge and technical expertise to safeguard the dam and its mile-long spillway.
FEMA has noted that in past disasters where there was a “lack of maintenance,” they only had the legal authority to provide reimbursements for work to bring facilities back to their “pre-disaster design,” the two lawmakers explained. In Oroville’s case, that would merely “return the spillways to the same condition that played a role in causing the disaster in the first place,” LaMalfa contends.
Mellon told Western Farm Press in May that “DWR will continue to submit reimbursements to FEMA until they provide direction otherwise.” She recently acknowledged to reporters that the process could be lengthy.
The DWR anticipates that more funds will be approved as it sends updated cost estimates to FEMA in the coming weeks, officials say. Reimbursement determinations are based on FEMA's eligibility categories and policies.
California wants the federal government to pay 75 percent of the cost of rebuilding the dam, with state water contractors covering the remainder.
Lake Oroville levels
FEMA's latest batch of funding comes as state officials have been keeping an eye on Lake Oroville levels as crews have been wrapping up work on the emergency spillway. With storms and runoff from an abundant snowpack, the DWR may use the rebuilt main spillway later this year, according to a separate release. In the meantime, the agency has ramped up releases from the Hyatt Powerplant, from 5,000 to 7,000 cfs.
Lake Oroville was at 70 percent of its capacity as of March 7, according to the DWR's California Data Exchange Center.