Oroville Dam Failure Is Another Example Of Failure To Invest In Infrastructure
The unfolding disaster in Northern California is yet another example of the deleterious effects of Republican obstruction to infrastructure investment over the last eight years. But it also reflects decades of underinvestment in maintaining, rebuilding, and improving our critical infrastructure. Last May I wrote about the dismal state of America’s dams and levees and detailed that much of the problem with maintenance comes from the fact that a majority of our dams are actually privately owned. An additional problem is that dams are principally the responsibility of the individual states and the states are notoriously weak in monitoring the state of those structures.
In this case, the Oroville dam is the responsibility of the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) and holds the state’s second largest reservoir. Obviously, DRW is confronted with an extreme situation as California’s drought has ended with a winter that has seen one storm after another dump record amounts of snow and rain, especially in Northern California. This has created a situation where the dam is essentially more than 100% full.
In order to deal with that situation and prepare for further storms coming this week, DWR started releasing water down the main overflow spillway. Unfortunately, a huge whole suddenly began to appear in the spillway and water escaped beyond the spillway boundaries as it flowed down into the Feather River. Because of that and the prediction of more impending storms, DWR also began to use the emergency spillway until that area began to also erode rapidly. This was the first time the emergency spillway, rather than just the overflow spillway, had been used since the dam was built over a half century ago.
The erosion in both spillways has created immense concern for everyone. The erosion of the emergency spillway drove the order for the mass evacuation of Oroville and the surrounding areas and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. The concern is that the emergency spillway actually collapses and sends a 30 foot wall of water cascading into the communities below and severely damaging the reservoir’s capacity for years.
The sad part about all this was it was entirely predictable. In 2005, when the dam was being re-licensed, three environmental groups filed a motion to require the state to reinforce the emergency spillway with concrete in a similar fashion to the overflow spillway. That would keep free flowing water from eroding the emergency spillway hillside and threatening the stability of the dam. The concrete upgrade would have cost $100 million and none of the beneficiaries of the dam, which not only includes the Oroville area but also most of the Central Valley and Southern California that relies on the reservoir for its water, could agree on how to shoulder the cost. That all became moot when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission determined that the spillway met its guidelines and stated that they expected there would be minimal erosion if the emergency spillway need to be used. That ruling has turned out to be a phenomenal error. The DRW had only released 3% of the amount of water the emergency spillway was supposed to handle and the erosion was already extreme.
Even if the dam survives this rainy season, the damage will still already be enormous. The emergency spillway will need to be reinforced and the overflow spillway will need to be repaired. In addition, the silt that has flowed into the Feather River from both spillways could impede the flow of water down into the Central Valley and Southern California, requiring a massive dredging operation. And that’s just if the dam survives.
If , God forbid, the emergency spillway actually collapses, it will not only create a huge flooding issue downstream as a 30 foot wall of water moves through the Feather River channel but also severely impact the availability of water in the Central Valley and Southern California. Even worse, the collapse of the spillway will create even further erosion, potentially effecting the integrity of the dam itself. The loss of access to the Oroville reservoir would be an unimaginable disaster for the rest of California. It is a striking irony that California has suffered through years of drought and now may potentially lose a huge source of water because there is actually too much of it.
Meanwhile, the close to 200,000 people who have been evacuated will not be going home anytime soon, at least for the next week or more. The disruption to their lives and livelihoods will be difficult. They are now essentially internal refugees and it seems the Trump administration has the same attitude toward them as they do to external refugees. Although FEMA is on the scene, there has not been a peep about the situation from the Trump administration and Governor Brown’s request for an emergency to be declared has been met with silence. Perhaps because California is a blue state or, more likely, because of the general ineptitude of the Trump administration, I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised.
[I’ve also written about this and other issues on my personal blog at tidalsoundings.blogspot.com]