State Issues

How does California move forward after historic storm season?

Oroville Dam’s crippled spillway is inspected via helicopter after it was shut off. It worked as it was designed despite failure of the cement.
Oroville Dam’s crippled spillway is inspected via helicopter after it was shut off. It worked as it was designed despite failure of the cement. Chico Enterprise-Record

This winter’s record-breaking storms have proved a fierce test of our state and its infrastructure.

It has been particularly frightening for people in and around the city of Oroville. We’d first like to say how glad we are that hundreds of thousands of people were able to safely evacuate and the emergency spillway helped provide the necessary time to do so. And we share their relief at being able to return to their homes.

Now that the immediate danger has passed, we can take a more thoughtful look at what happened.

Unfortunately, facts sometimes get lost in a crisis. There has been a lot of finger-pointing and talk about whether the emergency spillway at Oroville Dam should have been made even stronger.

First, let’s be clear about what the emergency spillway was designed to do. It was built as an extra precaution in addition to the regular overflow mechanisms. In other words, it was never intended to be the first line of protection, but a backup to the main spillway. If you look at other similar projects, it’s common, and meets safety guidelines, for the dual-purpose spillways to be constructed as they were at Oroville.

As was pointed out by Jeffrey Mount of the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, Oroville Dam successfully handled the big flood of 1997 without even using the backup spillway.

Since that flood, the emergency spillway and the dam itself have been rechecked, relicensed and deemed safe and capable of handling what, at the time, experts believed would be the worst-case scenario. And the licensing agency, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, even noted that in an extreme event, erosion of the emergency spillway would be likely.

In other words, it performed as expected.

California has seen an unprecedented amount of rain and snowfall this year, well above the wettest year in the state’s recorded history. According to the California Department of Water Resources, precipitation in the Northern Sierra this year is 220 percent above average. And the storm year has not yet ended.

This historic water year has put an additional strain on all of California’s aging infrastructure – not just dams and spillways, but roads, bridges, levees and more. Of course, we’d all prefer that every structure come through an emergency without any damage, but sometimes nature throws such extraordinary events in your path that that outcome cannot be achieved.

In the near term, the process of addressing the Oroville spillway has already begun. The DWR has been directed to examine the damage and review ways to reduce risk and increase safety during this emergency period and beyond.

However, addressing the long term requires stepping back and examining the complete picture of this winter’s precipitation impact. How do we best stretch thin resources to shore up key infrastructure? What are the immediate needs versus long-term needs? Should we plan for this year’s extraordinary storms to become ordinary? If so, do we need to expedite the building of more water storage?

Moving past this remarkable storm season and bringing the state out of its current state of emergency will take leadership, hard work, calm collaboration and everyone bringing their best ideas to the table – not blame and finger-pointing.

Regarding the emergency situation in Oroville, we applaud the swift work of government officials and are delighted that evacuees are now home.

Moving ahead, we look forward to rolling up our sleeves and working with all involved toward an even more secure water future.

Mike Wade is executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition.