Pay to fix dams or pay more in a catastrophe

River Road, southwest of Modesto, was flooded in February by the San Joaquin River, causing its closure just south of Villa Manucha Road.
River Road, southwest of Modesto, was flooded in February by the San Joaquin River, causing its closure just south of Villa Manucha Road. jlee@modbee.com

California’s dam inspectors appear to be doing their jobs well. Unfortunately, too many dam operators aren’t, and could be placing the public at risk.

That’s the conclusion we reached after reading a report by The Sacramento Bee’s Ryan Sabalow and Dale Kasler. As the effects of climate change become more pronounced, we’ll be left with no choice except to invest in flood control and other water-related public works – including better maintaining the levees that keep our rivers in their channels and out of our homes.

Kasler and Sabalow reviewed reports by safety inspectors who identified problems at 93 of California’s 1,400 dams, 91 of which are “high hazard” – meaning people live and work downstream. They’re owned by various operators, from local water districts to utilities to the mighty Metropolitan Water District, which provides water to 19 million Southern Californians.

Most problems are minor, and no dam appears likely to fail soon. But small problems can become big problems. As Jeffrey Mount, a water expert at the Public Policy Institute of California, says: “You’re lucky until you’re not.”

That was evident when the Oroville Dam spillway crumbled in February under pressure from the deluge in California’s wettest-ever rainy season. Some experts believe tree roots clogged the drainage system, undermining the spillway and leading to a $600 million rebuilding project.

But that’s just one problem; there are myriad others.

The levees that keep the San Joaquin River in its banks as it flows through Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties were too weak last winter to allow emergency releases from Don Pedro. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gambled we wouldn’t have more rain, or sudden warming, and held more Tuolumne River water behind the dam. Though a few areas were evacuated, thousands living in Manteca and Lathrop avoided being flooded out.

Another example is North Fork Dam, built in 1939 on tiny Pacheco Creek. Loosely speaking, it’s operated by the Pacheco Pass Water District in Santa Clara County. For years inspectors cited spillway damage from roots with no effort to fix them. In 2016, the reason became evident: The Pacheco Pass district was being dissolved.

Now, the potential bill is coming into focus. The Santa Clara Valley Water District, which hopes to take over the Pacheco district, submitted an application to the California Water Commission seeking $484.5 million to expand the 6,000-acre-foot reservoir to hold 141,000 acre-feet.

The Water Commission begins two days of meetings Wednesday to consider that request and 10 others for funding from Proposition 1, which voters approved in 2014. The commission has only $2.7 billion to allocate for storage, but requests for more than $10 billion.

Meanwhile, the Department of Water Resources says it will take $5 billion to repair dams statewide. The Central Valley Flood Protection Board estimates we need $21 billion over the next three decades to prepare for major floods, including reinforcing our levees.

Don’t expect help from Washington. Despite President Donald Trump’s promise to invest heavily in infrastructure, Congress seems incapable of funding it. Last year Congress approved legislation to help reinforce dams, but authorized only $10 million nationwide to do it. Even that paltry sum was never actually appropriated.

In 2011, the U.S. Geological Survey said a mega-storm could cause $725 billion in damage in California.

Though the costs of fixing the system are high, the price of not would be many, many times higher.