Trying to head off a disaster, state officials increased the flow down the dam’s main spillway on Sunday night. Their efforts to deal with the crisis could determine not only whether entire towns are inundated but also whether the state’s second-largest reservoir emerges with manageable damage or something much worse. Lake Oroville is the largest reservoir in the State Water Project, a network of canals and pumping stations that move water from Northern California to the Central Valley and Southern California. It’s one of the key reservoirs in the system that stores water for the dry spring and summer months. “It would be a massive blow to the state’s water system if they lose Oroville,” said Peter Gleick, a water researcher at the Oakland-based Pacific Institute. “The question is, will it erode away the emergency spillway? Will there be a big uncontrolled release of water? Or will they be able to draw the lake down enough to prevent that?” He said the big worry is not that the dam itself would fail, but that a failure of the spillway could cut into the hillside and potentially release more and more water, leading to a “cascading failure.” Gleick said if a major flood were to occur, dealing with a water supply problem would then become “a secondary issue.” This long exposure photograph shows the Oroville Dam discharging water at a rate of 100,000 cubic feet per second over a spillway as an emergency measure in Oroville, California on February 13, 2017. (Credit: JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images) Repairing the main spillway could cost between $100 million and $200 million, William Croyle, the Department of Water Resource's acting director said Saturday. But the damage costs appear to be mounting with the additional erosion damage to the emergency spillway.
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