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Walnut Growers File $15 Million Claim Against State Following Oroville Dam Crisis

OROVILLE -- The first in what may be a series of multi-million dollar claims against the state as a result of the Oroville Dam spillway incident has been filed. Attorneys representing walnut growers say the Department of Water Resources was at fault for uncontrolled emergency releases of water from the dam and the flood damage that resulted.

George Onyette has worked the walnut orchards at J.E.M Farms for 41 years. Many of his orchards are in the flood plain, so flooding isn't new for him. What is new is the amount and force of the water that flowed chest high through some of the orchards.

Now he's struggling to keep the surviving trees productive.

"Covering the roots back up, moving the sand around and trying to put the orchard floor in shape so we can harvest it," Onyette said.

Many of the walnut trees along the river look fine, those along a mile and half of the river bank are damaged or gone.  Orchard land that once extended 20 to 40 feet beyond the current river bank collapsed into raging flood water.

Many of the walnut trees survived, but as you get closer to the water, you can see where the current actually swept away much of the orchard and many of the trees are simply gone.

About 25 acres of George’s land simply disappeared.

Of course it’s not just the loss of hundreds of walnut trees and damage to land and equipment -- there could be a decade or more of lost production.

"These were planted in 1987, so probably in the prime of life so ... economics we use 50 years," Onyette said.

But is the Department of Water Resources responsible for an act of nature?

Perhaps not, but attorneys for several growers say the failed spillway was known to be faulty for years and nothing was done.

“We are here because the state had a responsibility to ensure the safety of the residents of Oroville and their property and the state simply failed to do its job," said attorney Niall McCarthy.

While the initial claim is for $15 million, there may be many more flood victims who file claims against the state.

The claim filed Wednesday means that DWR must respond to the accusations -- essentially revealing what they knew about the spillway deficiencies and how long they knew it.

While Wednesday's claim is limited, attorney's did not rule out a class-action lawsuit as more victims come forward. State rules require any damage claims against the state be filed within six months of when the damage occurred.