Fact Check

Did California Divert Dam Repair Funds to Programs for 'Illegals'?

Money for the state's dam infrastructure does not come from the same fund as programs that would pay for programs serving immigrants, either with or without documents.

Published Feb 16, 2017

 (Wikimedia commons)
Image Via Wikimedia commons
The state of California ignored structural issues with the Oroville dam and paid for programs to benefit undocumented people instead.
What's True

State and federal officials have failed to address concerns about the Oroville Dam spillways for years.

What's False

The state did not sacrifice the dam to instead pay for programs benefiting undocumented immigrants.

On 15 February 2017, the web site ConservativeDailyPost.com published an inaccurate story bearing the headline, "Post-Emergency Report Concludes: CA Governor Directed Critical Dam Funds To Programs For Illegals," and reporting that a nonexistent post-emergency report found that California governor Jerry Brown spent $25 billion on programs for undocumented immigrants rather than investing in fixing the Oroville Dam, leading to current dangerous conditions in Northern California:

Despite warnings about the flood danger posed by the Oroville Dam twelve years ago, flaky California Democratic Governor Jerry Brown ignored the warnings in favor of spending $25 billion per year on illegal immigrants.

Now the chickens are coming home to roost as rainstorms later in the week could cause the neglected portion of the dam to dump large amounts of water on downtown Oroville.

Brown stands revealed as spending money on unlawful immigrants rather than protecting the more than 20 million farmers and residential consumers the dam provides water to.

While it is true that environmental groups have been warning state and federal authorities about structural deficiencies at Oroville Dam since well before Brown took office, the dam and programs for undocumented immigrants are funded from separate budget sources, thus spending on one does not impact the other. Ted Thomas, spokesman for the California Department of Water Resources, told us:

Lake Oroville is part of the State Water Project, which is owned and operated by the California Department of Water Resources.  All of the construction, operation, and maintenance costs of the State Water Project are paid by the 29 public water agencies (known as the SWP contractors) that take delivery of water from the project.

ConservativeDailyPost.com linked to an article from the Washington Times, which quoted conservatives critical of the California governor for failing to address issues with the dam while spending on programs for undocumented people and a high-speed rail project. The article cites others who said President Trump should help repair the dam, instead of building a new wall at the U.S.-Mexico border:

Critics of California’s willingness to spend billions of dollars on high-speed rail and services for illegal immigrants were quick to draw parallels to the state’s failure to invest in the Oroville Dam. The cost of fixing the spillway alone is now $200 million.

Charlie Kirk, founder of conservative student group Turning Point USA, fired off a meme Monday saying, “California Governor Jerry Brown spends $25 billion per year to support illegal immigrants/I wonder how much Governor Brown spent to maintain the Oroville Dam?”

Others defended Mr. Brown, pointing out that the emergency spillway had never been used until this year and that the catastrophic rainstorms came as a shock, especially after five years of drought.

Still others turned the crisis into an opportunity to blast Mr. Trump, saying he should repair the Oroville Dam instead of building a wall on the southern border.

While the article doesn't say where Kirk's meme sourced its "$25 billion" figure, a 2014 study by immigrant reduction proponents Federation for American Immigration Reform claimed that undocumented immigrants cost the Golden State $25.3 billion annually. The claim is questionable, however, because the group lumps U.S. citizens born to undocumented immigrants in with non-citizen children when estimating the cost of education:

Nearly half of those expenditures ($12.3 billion) result from the costs of K-12 education for the children of illegal aliens — both those illegally in the country and those born in the United States. Another major outlay ($2.1 billion) results from the need to provide supplemental English language instruction to Limited English Proficient students, many of whom are children of illegal aliens. Together, these educational costs are 57.1 percent of total expenditures.

Further, the study is vague about items like how researchers estimated public safety and judicial costs and what figures they used to estimate health care costs — and here again, the group lumped in children who are American citizens born to undocumented parents along with children who are undocumented. We could not locate any confirmation that undocumented people cost California taxpayers $25 billion yearly, and this report appears flawed because it includes American citizens in its estimation of that cost.

What is true is that environmental experts have been warning officials since at least 2003 about the now-compromised spillway that is threatening to collapse and flood communities below. As early as 2003, Friends of the River, the Sierra Club, and the South Yuba River Citizens League have been warning state and federal officials that the spillway was unsound. In a 2003 letter, the groups wrote:

We are concerned that the physical structure of the ungated spillway may not comport well with the exist well with the existing reservoir regulation manual that calls for use of reservoir surcharge space by utilizing the Dam's ungated spillway when appropriate...  At present, the ungated spillway at Oroville Dam consists of a spillway lip only – and utilizes a hillside as the project spillway. Utilizing such a spillway has the potential to cause severe damage to the downstream hillside, project facilities, and downstream environments located in the path of the flood release...

We do not believe that it is in the Department’s best interest to pursue a relicensing strategy that might in practice reduce the effective flood control space at Oroville Dam. Rather, it would seem prudent to seek approval from FERC for modifications to the Dam such as the construction of a spillway below the ungated spillway lip that would allow Dam operators to operate the Dam consistent with the existing and desired flood operation rules without causing significant damages or disruption to project land and facilities.

The Washington Post explains:

In October 2005, as the Oroville Dam was going through a re-licensing process, the three groups filed a motion urging a federal regulatory agency to require state officials to armor the emergency spillway with concrete so that in the event of extreme rain and flooding, water would not freely cascade down and erode the hillside. The upgrade would have cost millions of dollars and no one wanted to foot the bill, said Ronald Stork, senior policy advocate for Friends of the River, one of the groups that filed the motion.

“When the dam is overfull, water goes over that weir and down the hillside, taking much of the hillside with it,” Stork told The Washington Post. “That causes huge amounts of havoc. There’s roads, there’s transmission lines, power lines that are potentially in the way of that water going down that auxiliary spillway.”

Federal officials, however, determined that nothing was wrong and the emergency spillway, which can handle 350,000 cubic feet of water per second, “would perform as designed” and sediment resulting from erosion would be insignificant, according to a July 2006 memo from John Onderdonk, then a senior civil engineer for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Eleven years later, flooding due to mid-February 2017 storms forced nearly 200,000 residents living in the dam's shadow to evacuate their homes. As of 16 February 2017, crews are working to shore up the structure as more heavy rain is expected in the coming week. Stork told us:

We were told not to worry our pretty little heads and they just ignored the issue of throwing the hillside into the channel below, saying that would never happen. Mother Nature just demonstrated they were incorrect.


Capshaw, Ron. "Post-Emergency Report Concludes: CA Governor Directed Critical Dam Funds To Programs For Illegals." The Conservative Daily Post. 15 February 2017.

Richardson, Valerie. "California Spent on High-Speed Rail and Illegal Immigrants, but Ignored Oroville Dam." The Washington Times. 13 February 2017.

Martin, Jack. "The Fiscal Burden of Illegal Immigration on California Taxpayers." Federation for American Immigration Reform. June 2014.

Guerra, Kristine. "The Government Was Warned That the Oroville Dam Emergency Spillway Was Unsafe. It Didn’t Listen." The Washington Post. 14 February 2017.

Bethania Palma is a journalist from the Los Angeles area who has been working in the news industry since 2006.