188,000 Flee as 'Wall of Water' Threatens Northern California
As nearly 200,000 Northern California residents flee to higher ground over the threat of the Oroville Dam emergency spillway's failure Sunday night, a report has emerged that state and federal officials were warned 12 years ago that the earthen structure was already at risk of erosion.
The Mercury News reported that back in Oct. 2005, Friends of the River, the Sierra Club and the South Yuba Citizens League filed a motion with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) during the Oroville Dam's relicensing process.
Oroville Dam: Feds and state officials ignored warnings 12 years ago https://t.co/PKPigjGOSo #OrovilleDam… https://t.co/5eX8eeZRvH— Paul Rogers (@Paul Rogers)1486964526.0
The environmental groups said that the dam, which California built and completed in 1968, did not meet modern safety standards and urged FERC to secure the dam's emergency spillway with concrete rather than have it remain as an earthen hillside.
Should extreme rain and flooding occur, the groups warned that the excess water could overwhelm the main concrete spillway and flow into the auxiliary spillway. Too much water could cause heavy erosion and potentially unleash flooding and threaten nearby communities.
"A loss of crest control could not only cause additional damage to project lands and facilities but also cause damages and threaten lives in the protected floodplain downstream," the groups wrote.
However, FERC rejected the groups' request. Furthermore, California's Department of Water Resources and other water agencies that would have paid for the upgrades said the fix was unnecessary.
"It is important to recognize that during a rare event with the emergency spillway flowing at its design capacity, spillway operations would not affect reservoir control or endanger the dam," wrote John Onderdonk, a FERC senior civil engineer in a July 27, 2006 memo to his managers.
"The emergency spillway meets FERC's engineering guidelines for an emergency spillway," he added. "The guidelines specify that during a rare flood event, it is acceptable for the emergency spillway to sustain significant damage."
KQED describes the emergency spillway as "essentially an ungated 1,700-foot-wide notch in the rim of the reservoir ... Below an initial concrete lip, water courses over bare earth all the way to the Feather River below, scouring the incline of earth, rocks and trees."
The secondary spillway has not been needed for use in its 48-year history—until this weekend.
The water level at Lake Oroville, California's second-largest reservoir, rose to record levels of more than a foot above what's considered "full" after Northern California's particularly wet winter. The lake also receives water from the northern Sierra Nevada mountain range, which also saw heavy rainfall, CNN noted.
Peak flows over. Outflows above inflows at #OrovilleDam. Reservoir #water level to slowly fall, for now. Breather u… https://t.co/YsGiSBejkk— Peter Gleick (@Peter Gleick)1486917976.0
Although the recent rainfall has brought much-needed relief to California's six years of epic drought, the nation's tallest dam is now nearly full. Water levels at the 770-foot-tall structure were less than seven feet from the top on Friday.
While the Oroville Dam is not currently compromised, both its primary spillway and the emergency spillway have problems due to severe erosion, authorities warned.
The primary spillway has a growing hole that is 250 feet long, 170 feet wide and about 40 to 50 feet deep, according to Bill Croyle, acting director of the Department of Water Resources. Because of the main spillway's damage, water has been pouring into the emergency spillway.
spillway at the #orovilledam - erosion was 1st reported 3 days ago, since then it has grown. https://t.co/MNep5CQ9Ni— CANGJOCOPS (@CANGJOCOPS)1486667430.0
Fortunately, water has stopped pouring over the dam's emergency spillway since Sunday night.
"Oroville lake levels have receded to the point that auxiliary spillway flows have stopped. DWR hopes to push over a million acre feet of water over the main spillway in the next week, clearing the way for much needed flood storage in the lake," California's Department of Water Resources said.
Still, officials are planning for the worst as the situation could yet become dangerous.
"This is not a drill. Repeat this is not a drill," the National Weather Service said Sunday, urging people living near Oroville Dam to evacuate.
A collapse of the secondary spillway could cause a "30-foot wall of water" coming out of Lake Oroville, Cal-Fire incident commander Kevin Lawson said at a Sunday night press conference.
.@JerryBrownGov Issues Emergency Order to Help Response to #OrovilleSpillway https://t.co/RW8XBlLFT6 https://t.co/ULQGjkt1c1— Gov. Brown Press Ofc (@Gov. Brown Press Ofc)1486968412.0
Evacuation orders are unchanged as of Monday morning.
"Once you have damage to a structure like that it's catastrophic," Croyle said. However, he stressed that "the integrity of the dam is not impacted" by the damaged spillway.
California Gov. Jerry Brown has issued an emergency order in response to the situation.
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A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
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