Oroville Dam: Government Failure

OK, so you may be wondering why I write about this issue after the mandatory evacuation order has been lifted. In short, the danger has not passed; we will be living with this issue for several years.

I know when I find myself on the same side as the Sierra Club that the guys in Sacramento have really screwed-up.

Link: Oroville Dam: Feds and state officials ignored warnings 12 years ago
Voters have authorized tens of billions of dollars in water bonds to be sold in California and no new water storage has been planned let alone built. In fact last I heard the only activity that government was considering was tearing down existing dams servicing San Francisco and far northern California.

Link: Hetch Hetchy Reservoir

Consider this from 2009:

In recent months, officials in Oregon, Washington and even California have agreed to spend millions to dismantle colossal dams built decades ago in order to protect native fish species, following legal tussles over water between the federal government, environmentalists, Indian tribes and farmers.

Link: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signs $11.1 billion California water bond measure.

Or this from 2008:

Meanwhile, on the California-Oregon border, in the wake of a dramatic, nationally reported fish kill in 2002, the unlikely coalition of fishermen, American Indians and environmentalists has successfully made its case to tear down four dams on the Klamath River. In this case, the courts, the state and Schwarzenegger himself have indicated support for dam removal.

Link: Schwarzenegger Pushes to Build New Dams While an Unlikely Coalition Battles to Tear Down Existing Ones

So voters have authorized billions for water and all we have gotten is agreements to reduce water storage. Meanwhile, maintenance on existing facilities has been somewhere between nil and minimal. Why?

Much of the money in these so called water bonds was never for water storage or infrastructure. Critics tried to point that out but the Party in power drowned-out their criticism. Second, don’t forget how government does budgets. Money dedicated to water simply frees up more funds from the General Fund that can then be spent elsewhere. It does not mean that any additional money will actually be spent on water projects. It just grows government and nothing more.

Now for Oroville Dam; Folks this is a huge mess.

As we all know from seeing the photos, there are two separate problems with the dam now. The main spillway and the emergency spillway.

The main spillway has at least two problems that combined to tear the thing to pieces…and the damage is continuing to compound on this part of the dam’s structure. Not only is there a hole 180 feet wide and 30 feet deep—as of a few weeks ago—but this hole is continuing to erode due to use. The spillway can’t be used anywhere near capacity without totally destroying itself.



What makes it worse is that in some photos, it appears that water is freely flowing under the spillway! If you noticed the photos with the spillway shutoff a few weeks ago, water was coming out of the hole and continuing down the spillway. At a quick glance on the Internet, I can’t find the angle that I think is illustrating this but I’m concerned that this is the case. If there are issues under the spillway due to whatever cause, the calculations for repair just got even more complicated.

The patch job from a few summers ago, has clearly failed and it looks to me as if the entire thing may need to be redone. Whatever repair is selected, it will need to be done in a matter of months not the years that typically accompany government red tape on projects of this scope. In the summer they can only drain water from the hydroelectric plant so once it begins raining next fall that spillway better be ready to roll.

The emergency spillway is clearly a problem and I fear that it may need to be deployed again before summer arrives. The rock bags and other measures taken seem more for show than because they are anything resembling a fix.

In the end, it appears that the choice will be destroy the spillway by increasing the discharge and thus increasing the damage it sustains or loosing control of the structure by deploying the emergency spillway. Hobson’s choice anyone?

My other concern is also a practical one. No engineer on the State’s payroll has ever been involved in overseeing the building or construction of a dam. In fact, I would wager that none of the folks doing the real engineering work to fix these problems was even born when the last dam was being approved for construction. C.C. Myers may not be the guy for this repair but you need someone that can work that quickly.

The irony is that Jerry Brown’s rainy day fund may be needed to save us from rain.

The Best advice that I can offer is stock some emergency rations and be ready to get out of dodge at the first sign of trouble.