On November 23, 2018, the FERC After Action Panel (“FAAP”) issued a report (“FAAP Report”) providing an evaluation of the causes and recommendations to FERC after a spillway failure that took place at the Oroville Dam in February 2017.  According to the FAAP Report, issues with the Oroville Dam spillways have been ongoing since the project was commissioned in 1967, and there are shortcomings related to the implementation of FERC’s Part 12 dam safety regulations.  In light of its assessment, the FAAP provided FERC with recommendations for improvement of the Part 12 program.

In February 2017, the Oroville Dam located in Northern California experienced sudden and severe erosion damage to the main service and emergency spillways of the dam, which resulted in the evacuation of 180,000 residents downstream.  After the spillway failure, FERC convened the FAAP to review project documents and history for the Oroville Dam.  Such documents were to include design, construction, consultant, and inspection reports and other reports by the state of California.  In addition, FERC directed the FAAP to evaluate the implementation of FERC’s dam safety program at the Oroville Dam, including: the dam owner requirements under Part 12 of FERC’s regulations (which govern the safety of water power projects and project works); the Potential Failure Modes Analysis (“PFMA”) process; the Instrumentation and Monitoring Program; and Owners Dam Safety Program (“ODSP”).  FERC asked that the FAAP focus on both the main and emergency spillways and to review failure mechanisms if possible.  FERC stated that the California Department of Water Resources’ Independent Forensic Team (“IFT”) would report their findings to the FAAP for its review.  If the FAAP found any shortcomings, FERC directed the FAAP to provide recommendations for improvement or changes to the FERC dam safety program to ensure the avoidance of future incidents.  On January 5, 2018, the IFT issued a comprehensive report to the FAAP which covered all the main design, construction, inspection, operation, and maintenance activities that may have contributed to the spillway failure (“IFT Report”).

In its November 23 report to FERC, the FAAP first provided comments on the IFT Report related to the causes of the spillway failures and found that the IFT Report did not include a physical explanation for the “root cause” of the spillway failure.  In the FAAP’s view, the failure was caused by the unanticipated, slow progressive erosion of the foundation materials used in the construction of the spillway.  Second, the FAAP reviewed the effectiveness of dam safety activities, including FERC’s Annual Inspections, the 5-year Part 12 process Safety Inspection Reports, the PFMA sessions from 2004 to 2014, and the ODSP.  Lastly, the FAAP Report highlighted several shortcomings in the implementation of FERC’s Part 12 dam safety regulations.  According to the FAAP Report, dam safety programs have been implemented with a greater emphasis on satisfying the administrative tasks and with a lesser focus on the analysis, maintenance, and evaluation of current data and documentation.

Consequently, the FAAP recommended a revamp of FERC’s Part 12 program, starting with the establishment of a Dam Safety Engineering Review Board (“DSERB”).  The DSERB would be comprised of a variety of experts in several fields who serve for a period of 5-10 years.  The DSERB would review a small number of high hazard dams as selected annually by FERC and provide Part 12 reports to FERC.  Based on the Part 12 reports, FERC would then develop recommendations and direct dam owners to attend a review meeting with FERC and the DSERB to review the Part 12 reports and conclusions.  In addition, the FAAP recommended that FERC issue a set of priority topics to its regional offices to be addressed in all Part 12 reviews.  Finally, the FAAP recommended that, in addition to the Part 12 reports, FERC should identify the highest dams and spillways and assign a team of FERC engineers to conduct FERC annual inspections.

A copy of the FAAP Report is available here.