Leak in dam prompts evacuation, highway closing near Los Angeles

| 1/14/2005

The situation in California – already plagued by historic weather problems – has gotten worse.

Officials have closed a state Highway 71 and evacuated people from 800 homes and numerous businesses in Corona, CA, after local officials expressed concerns about the Prado Dam, which is in the community, media outlets reported.

Numerous truck drivers and OOIDA members live in Corona, a suburb of 138,000 people southeast of central Los Angeles.

Shortly after noon local time Friday, John Samano, a public information office with the Corona Police, said officials had closed just the one highway, but that the closing had affected several roads.

State Highway 71, which crosses the river, is closed. State Highway 91, which runs parallel to the river, is still open now. However, 71 links Highway 91 and state Highway 60, and all three are freeways, so the closing means truckers passing through “might experience slower traffic than usual because of all the congestion going on in the area right now.”

Southern California has been hit by historic levels of precipitation recently, with torrential rains and flooding in lower elevations, and snow piling up several feet high in upper elevations. One storm-related mudslide buried four blocks of homes in the town of La Conchita, CA.

The Army Corps of Engineers said in a news release that the storms have left a near-record level of water behind Prado Dam, and that the agency had increased the amount of water rushing out the spillway to 10,000 cubic feet per second to reduce pressure on the structure.

Other precautionary measures were being taken as well.

“Our contractor has been working overnight placing material on the downstream face of the dam where the seepage is occurring at the moment as a precautionary measure against potential failure in the dam,” Col. Alex Dornstauder, Los Angeles District commander for the Corps, said in a written statement.

“The minor seepage has remained steady, and they do not see an imminent danger to the dam. We are continuing to monitor the situation, and we are taking appropriate action to mitigate the seepage.”

Fire Department officials in Corona reportedly made the decision to evacuate homes in the affected portion of Corona early Friday, Jan. 14, according to The Associated Press.

Samano said the evacuation started at 5 a.m. local time and continued to be in effect at 1 p.m. Residents were moved to a local high school, and most, he said, were appreciative that the city had acted to remove them from the potential danger.

The town’s police chief told reporters early Friday that the dam had a small leak, and that the leak was the reason for the evacuation.

Initially Corps officials were quoted by news outlets as saying there was no leak in the dam. However, Corps officials confirmed in a news release that they notified Riverside, Orange and San Bernardino county emergency operation offices of the increased amount of water headed down the spillways – and of potential problems with the dam – at 10 p.m. Jan. 13.

Samano said the evacuation included roughly 300 mobile homes and 500 other homes, all north of the state Highway 91 Freeway and west of the dam.

David Breitigan, an OOIDA member from Corona, said his wife called him after she heard about the situation.

“My lady just called me and asked to tell her how to get home,” he said. “She works in Irvine and we live in Corona.”

Breitigan was in Albuquerque, NM, at work, but his wife, Brenda, was planning to head home about 3 p.m. local time, and called for his advice.

“The (Interstates) 91 and the 71 are going to be closed down,” he said. “I rerouted her up and around.”

Although Breitigan thought his home was not in the evacuation area, the couple were nonetheless being cautious.

“She told me she thinks that the media is just blowing it out of proportion,” he said. “I said, I don’t know, you better not take any chances. We don’t know for sure.”

The dam, operated by the Army Corps of Engineers, is located where Riverside and San Bernardino counties come together.

Built in 1941, the 106-foot-high earthen structure holds back water in the Santa Ana River, filling a large reservoir that holds 196,000 acre-feet of water. An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover 1 acre to the depth of 1 foot.

– By Mark H. Reddig, associate editor