Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

​Oroville Dam: A Wake-Up Call for America

Popular
​Oroville Dam: A Wake-Up Call for America
EPA

The utterly avoidable, terrifying and still potentially catastrophic failures of the spillways of North America's highest dam—California's 170 foot, earth-filled Oroville—could, with the right national leadership, awaken America to the urgency of investing in our physical safety and future—our infrastructure.


Sixty years old, Oroville single handedly provides one-third of the water for all of Southern California. It is on the verge of failure, because an under designed emergency spillway began to erode away the face of the dam when used for the first time. Three counties and 220,00 people have been evacuated; much of California's agriculture faces parched fields after one of the heaviest rainfall years on record. The state's water establishment refused to armor the emergency channel with concrete because "it was too expensive"—perhaps $10-20 million. They justified their recklessness by assuming that if the emergency spillway was needed, the emergency in question would be mild, timid and well-behaved. The main function of the dirt spillway was to provide a false sense of security to the public. No one knew if it would really work or much cared. Experts blithely asserted it would never be needed. Now we know. It was and it doesn't.

America's bridges, dams, highways, mass transit systems, drinking water supplies, sewers, levees, ports and other vital public support systems face similar challenges and pose similar risks. Of 84,000 major dams in the U.S., 14,000 are rated as being "high-hazard" if they fail. The foundations of our economy and our communities are eroding beneath us just like the muddy face of the Oroville Dam.

The agencies and regulators charged with ensuring that our physical infrastructure works often shill for shoddiness and short-cuts. Often maligned environmental "obstructionists" are the frequently outshouted defenders of doing it right.

Oroville Dam was only approved by the voters of California after a devastating Feather River flood swept through Oroville in 1955; it was sold as a public safety measure. The real driver was the desire of development interests in arid Southern California to tap the rivers of the wetter north. Even presented as flood protection, the dam barely received voter approval. To keep costs down, the emergency spillway, designed to handle overflow waters from the severe rainfall events, wasn't clad in concrete, except at the very lip. It was known and accepted, that surging waters over-topping the spillway would rapidly erode the earthen dam below that lip. In bureaucratese, the safety rules conceded that the spillway would fail if used: "The guidelines specify that during a rare flood event, it is acceptable for the emergency spillway to sustain significant damage."

In 2005, Oroville came up for safety review by the Federal government. The Sierra Club, which I then headed, joined Friends of the River in urging that the emergency spillway be clad in concrete. The groups argued, using common sense, that "in the event of extreme rain and flooding, fast-rising water would overwhelm the main concrete spillway, then flow down the emergency spillway and that could cause heavy erosion that would create flooding for communities downstream, but also could cause a failure, known as 'loss of crest control.'"

The very water agencies whose constituents—farmers, businesses and families—depended on reliable delivery of water from Oroville, lobbied strongly against having to provide the "tens of millions" of dollars that strengthening the spillway would have required. They pinched pennies even though they knew that the dam was highly vulnerable. (On Christmas, 1964, while the dam was under construction, it had been almost over-topped by a series of heavy rainfalls—the Feather River had given fair warning of its capriciousness and power).

Regulators, imbued with the George W. Bush administration's hostility to a federal role in public safety, were not impressed. (Remember Katrina. The fuse on Oroville was just longer). They rejected the environmental petition. The "emergency" spillway remained unsheathed, a soft-underbelly at the Earth-filled core of the heart of the nation's tallest dam.

Now the Feather has shown its strength again. The scariest thing is that once the main spillway failed the emergency spillway began eating out the dam while it was carrying less than 5 percent of its 350,000 cubic feet per second design rating. This strongly suggests that many, perhaps most, of America's dams, are reliant on engineering assumptions which will not withstand the test of extreme weather unleashed by climate change.

What's next? Water managers will continue dumping as much water—only a few months ago, as precious as gold, still likely to be needed next summer—as they can, through the damaged but partially functional main spillway. Their goal is to drain Oroville sufficiently that the heavy rains expected in a few days and later in the season will not again reach the emergency spillway and risk spillway failure and a virtually instantaneous release of 10 billion gallons, the top 30 feet of stored water behind the dam.

Now that water levels are down, authorities have allowed normal life to resume in ghost towns like Oroville, Yuba City and Marysville, the very communities whose security was the public justification for building the dam in the first place. Water managers will still need to keep the dam far below its normal storage level until the water season ends, because they cannot use the main spillway at its full design capacity, until it is repaired. This means that next summer farmers and cities will fall far short of the water Oroville could have delivered if operated normally. A loss of a full third of the region's water supply is a frightening possibility if repairs of Oroville require shutting it down this summer.

Will the lessons of this 60-year folly be learned? California might realize that it needs to invest in water delivery and flood control systems better prepared for the extreme weather and diminished snow pack to come. Or this disaster could be used to argue for ever more elaborate, fragile and vulnerable water diversion projects like the proposed tunnels in the Delta, larded up with fatter public subsidies to the very water users who refused to properly repair Oroville's spillways in 2005.

President Trump's campaign promises suggest that he should use Oroville to light a fire under Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, who breezily dismiss every warning from the nation's civil engineers as a call for "a trillion dollar stimulus project." The White House did cite the emergency as evidence of the need for a major investment in infrastructure, saying, "The situation is a textbook example of why we need to pursue a major infrastructure package in Congress."

But Trump's recent behavior suggests that he's not willing to do the heavy lifting of moving the Tea Party wing of the Republican party out of his way. It's going to take the rest of us—businesses and mayors, governors and community leaders, to fire up the Democrats in—and the president—to commit that by the end of the next eight years, America's dams—and the rest of its infrastructure—are fit for service in the 21st century.

A 3-hour special film by EarthxTV calls for protection of the Amazon and its indigenous populations. EarthxTV.org

To save the planet, we must save the Amazon rainforest. To save the rainforest, we must save its indigenous peoples. And to do that, we must demarcate their land.

Read More Show Less

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres delivers a video speech at the high-level meeting of the 46th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council UNHRC in Geneva, Switzerland on Feb. 22, 2021. Xinhua / Zhang Cheng via Getty Images

By Anke Rasper

"Today's interim report from the UNFCCC is a red alert for our planet," said UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

The report, released Friday, looks at the national climate efforts of 75 states that have already submitted their updated "nationally determined contributions," or NDCs. The countries included in the report are responsible for about 30% of the world's global greenhouse gas emissions.

Read More Show Less

Trending

New Delhi's smog is particularly thick, increasing the risk of vehicle accidents. SAJJAD HUSSAIN / AFP via Getty Images

India's New Delhi has been called the "world air pollution capital" for its high concentrations of particulate matter that make it harder for its residents to breathe and see. But one thing has puzzled scientists, according to The Guardian. Why does New Delhi see more blinding smogs than other polluted Asian cities, such as Beijing?

Read More Show Less
A bridge over the Delaware river connects New Hope, Pennsylvania with Lambertville, New Jersey. Richard T. Nowitz / Getty Images

In a historic move, the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) voted Thursday to ban hydraulic fracking in the region. The ban was supported by all four basin states — New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New York — putting a permanent end to hydraulic fracking for natural gas along the 13,539-square-mile basin, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

Read More Show Less
Woodpecker

Colombia is one of the world's largest producers of coffee, and yet also one of the most economically disadvantaged. According to research by the national statistic center DANE, 35% of the population in Columbia lives in monetary poverty, compared to an estimated 11% in the U.S., according to census data. This has led to a housing insecurity issue throughout the country, one which construction company Woodpecker is working hard to solve.

Read More Show Less