OLDTOWN, Idaho — Could Oroville happen here? Officials at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers say no. The spillway at the Albeni Falls Dam is often opened to full spill, said USACE spokesperson Patricia Cook Graesser Feb. 24. That makes the North Idaho dam quite different from its counterpart in Northern California, where concerns about the Oroville Dam have forced evacuations of area residents in recent weeks and where experts are still scrambling to cure its woes. The Oroville Dam’s emergency spillway was used for the first time in its 48-year history on Feb. 11, after a large storm raised Lake Oroville levels higher than normal. A giant crater opened up in the spillway Feb. 7 and 188,000 area residents were evacuated Feb. 12 when scientists feared that the spillway might fail. The staff at Albeni Falls takes safety seriously, Graesser said.
“Safety is a daily focus at our dams, including Albeni Falls. Every employee at the dam is watchful and empowered to immediately report to the District’s dam safety professionals. We regularly assess our dams in various degrees of detail. Inspections verify proper operation and maintenance is taking place. Risk assessments provide a more in-depth look at the dam and its ability to operate as intended.”
Graesser also said USACE officials at Albeni Falls regularly work with their emergency management staff at Bonner County, Pend Oreille County, and the Kalispel and Kootenai Tribes for flood preparedness and flooding-related weather training. USACE spokesman Scott Lawrence explained Feb. 27 that the technical differences between the two dams mean that what happened at Oroville is not likely to occur here in Bonner County. Oroville Dam is the tallest dam in the U.S. at 770 feet and water in the forebay exerts 267 pounds of pressure per square inch. Albeni Falls is only 90 feet tall and operates of a varying hydraulic head of 8-33 feet equaling only 3.5 to 14 pounds of pressure per square inch, he said. In addition, Lawrence said that spilling water from the vastly different heights of Oroville and Albeni Falls leads to very different erosive forces. “There’s not the same type of pressures and forces that are being exerted on the structure.”
Bonner County’s emergency operations plan instructs agencies to prepare for many types of situations related to damaged infrastructure, including dams. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, Idaho had 122 high hazard dams in need of rehabilitation, 36th highest in the nation. The report added that the average age of America’s 84,000 dams is 52 years, and that only 66 percent of the nation’s 13,991 high hazard dams located above population centers have emergency action plans in place for use in situations like what Oroville recently has experienced. At the federal level, the Federal Emergency Management Agency oversees the Interagency Committee on Dam Safety, which includes the Departments of Defense, Agriculture, Interior, and other federal agencies. According to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials, about 14 percent of America’s dams, including the Albeni Falls Dam, are owned or regulated by federal agencies.
Thank you, Ron
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