Collaboration in time of crisis: responding to the Oroville Dam emergency

Like all Californians, NOAA Fisheries has witnessed, with great alarm, the damage to the spillways at the Oroville Dam, and the threat to human health and safety it posed.  When the Oroville emergency began on February 7, we were immediately concerned for life and property, including our own staff, families, and friends who live in the communities downstream from the dam.

“Our first concern in any emergency is public safety, and that was always foremost in our minds during this crisis,” said Barry Thom, Regional Administrator for NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region.  “Once we knew people were safe, we were glad to lend our expertise in other ways -- such as protecting the public investment in imperiled fish and the facilities that support them. The teamwork and coordinated response on behalf of the public and the resources were impressive, and we were proud to be a part of it.”

As a result of the damage to the Oroville Dam spillway, sediment levels in the Feather River increased significantly over a short period of time. The Feather River Hatchery obtains its water directly from the Feather River for operation of the facility. In order to reduce the impacts associated with high levels of turbidity, Feather River Hatchery staff worked continually to clean mud and sediment from the steelhead eggs, housed in "egg stacks," which were too sensitive to be moved elsewhere. This extensive effort helped save approximately 700,000 threatened California Central Valley steelhead, while engineers from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife developed alternative means of bringing clean water to the developing eggs. Photo: Andrew Hughan/CDFW

About four miles downstream of the Oroville Dam is the Feather River Fish Hatchery, one of the most important fish hatcheries in California.  It is the largest producer of California Central Valley fall-run Chinook salmon, a species that provides millions of dollars annually to the state’s economy through commercial and recreational fishing.  The species also makes up about 60 percent of the fall-run Chinook salmon caught off the southern Oregon coast.


Juvenile spring-run Chinook salmon pour out of a California Department of Fish and Wildlife truck that carried them from the Thermalito Fish Hatchery into the Feather River on Monday, March 20th.  Spring-run Chinook salmon are a threatened species protected by state and federal law. Photo: Andrew Hughan/CDFW

Knowing the long-term investments California and its partners have made in Feather River wildlife, we wanted to provide our expertise, specifically regarding Central Valley salmon and steelhead, and support to the California Department of Water Resources (CDWR), the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) as they organized to deal with the crisis.  Along with CDFW, we made our scientists available to CDWR and FERC to provide them with the best scientific information available on the fish in the river, recognizing that public safety always took precedence.

Rapid decreases in flows can create isolated pools that have the potential to strand fish. After locating potential stranding sites, biologists from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the California Department of Water Resources, and NOAA Fisheries conducted surveys at the identified sites to assess fish presence and carry out fish rescues if determined necessary. Here biologists use a beach seine to remove stranded fish from an isolated pool near the Feather River. Photo: Andrew Hughan/CDFW

Besides supporting one of the largest Chinook salmon runs in the State of California, the Feather River also sustains populations of threatened salmon, steelhead, and green sturgeon that are protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  Notably, California Central Valley spring-run Chinook salmon produced at this hatchery are released in rivers across the region, including in places like the upper San Joaquin River, to support species recovery in places where these fish have historically thrived but have since gone extinct.

Juvenile Central Valley spring-run Chinook salmon are released back into raceways after "weight counts" are performed. These weight counts allows for a general estimation of the number of juveniles present by determining the number of fish per pound. Photo: Andrew Hughan/CDFW

Record setting precipitation in the Feather River watershed in January and February had caused Oroville Reservoir to fill rapidly.  On January 31, CDWR began spillway releases.  Eight days later the Oroville Dam spillway began to show signs of significant damage.  In the days that followed, soil erosion became a serious problem, pouring millions of cubic yards of debris and sediment into the Feather River.  It became clear that the survival of fish at the Feather River Hatchery was at risk.  NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region staff, in close cooperation with CDFW and CDWR, immediately agreed to help rescue the hatchery fish and transport them a safe distance downstream to the Thermalito Annex Hatchery.  This hatchery relies on a spring to furnish its water, so was not affected by the silt in the Feather River.

“There was this sense of urgency and satisfaction as we all worked together to save these fish that are already facing an uphill battle to survive,” said Amanda Cranford, NOAA Fisheries’ biologist for the West Coast Region.  “The coordination by California Department of Fish and Wildlife to transport the fish to Thermalito Annex on such short notice was amazing.”

In all, about two million spring-run Chinook salmon and about 4.2 million fall-run Chinook salmon were transferred to the Thermalito Annex.

Fortunately, actions taken at the dam prevented a disaster, and CDWR quickly started working on a plan to assess the damage at the spillways.  The agency began removing several million cubic yards of debris from the channel of the Feather River to prevent lasting damage to the Hyatt Powerhouse.  It was critical to have the generators up and running again to produce power, deliver water for municipal and agricultural use, and provide stable instream flow in the river downstream before another large storm was due to arrive.  There were daily phone calls and continuous coordination between all parties, and NOAA Fisheries was deeply engaged with CDWR and other agencies, trying to assess options in real-time.  It was during this assessment and planning phase of the emergency that NOAA Fisheries drafted recommendations for fish protections. 

NOAA routinely coordinates with other agencies and entities during emergency situations, like the Oroville Dam situation, and NOAA Fisheries will often recommend measures to avoid or minimize adverse effects to ESA-listed species and critical habitat during such events.  The recommendations provided to CDWR and FERC were strictly advisory—to be implemented only if possible and at the complete discretion of emergency response personnel.  NOAA Fisheries worked side-by-side with CDFW and CDWR to develop these measures, and at no point did developing or implementing the recommendations delay the ongoing emergency response aimed at protecting human life and property.

As the debris removal began and reservoir releases were stopped, the salmon in the Feather River were faced with the threat of becoming stranded in ponds and pools as the river receded. Again NOAA Fisheries, along with partners from CDFW,  CDWR, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service worked together closely to deploy boats and staff to survey the stranding sites, rescue fish, and release them back into the river.  Preliminary results show the group successfully recovered and returned to the river almost 1,400 salmon and 50 steelhead. 

The first batch of one million spring-run Chinook rescued from the hatchery was released on March 20th as Oroville Dam ramped up its water releases once again.  Additional flows will provide good survival conditions for the salmon as they make their long journey to the ocean this year.  Personnel at the Feather River Hatchery are using shovels to clean out the silt and debris that infiltrated their facility, trying to make it ready for the adult salmon returning in the spring and fall.   The fish rescues at the Feather River Fish Hatchery and in the Feather River are an excellent example of effective communication, collaboration, and coordination to protect multiple resources during an emergency. 

NOAA Fisheries will continue to work closely with CDFW and CDWR to support their continued emergency response efforts at the Oroville facility.  In the coming weeks and months, emergency operations will transition to repair actions.  This transition will bring new challenges that must be overcome to ensure repairs are completed.  Protection of life and safety will continue to take precedence to make sure essential repairs are completed on time. 

Longer term restoration of the water facilities and continued support for recovery of fish on the Feather River will take time as well as the dedication and commitment of many partners.  NOAA Fisheries is committed to all elements of this recovery and, as we move forward, we will continue to offer our scientific and technical expertise to all the agencies and partners involved.

Homepage photo: Juvenile Central Valley spring-run Chinook salmon are crowded towards the fish pump that loads them into the fish transport truck. Photo: Andrew Hughan/CDFW