An emergency caused by neglect

The Oroville Dam could still overflow, with catastrophic consequences, but this nightmare is the result of the system's twisted priorities, writes Nicole Colson.

Water from the Oroville Dam in Northern California rages down a spillwayWater from the Oroville Dam in Northern California rages down a spillway

AN EVACUATION order that forced tens of thousands of people to flee an area in Northern California along the Feather River on short notice this week has exposed the decrepit state of America's crumbling infrastructure--and the potentially catastrophic threat it poses to human life.

On the afternoon of February 12, authorities told some 180,000 people living in and around Oroville--a small city located 70 miles north of Sacramento--to immediately evacuate when it appeared that erosion from heavy storms would cause the imminent failure of a spillway of the massive Oroville Dam.

Oroville, the tallest dam in the U.S., holds back water from Lake Oroville, the state's second-largest reservoir and the main supplier of water to California's Central Valley farms and agricultural industry.

With the reservoir at 99 percent capacity, for the first time since its construction in 1968 authorities were forced to open an emergency spillway, releasing millions of cubic feet of water in order to ease the potential for a catastrophic failure.

Associated Press reported that earlier in the week, the unexpected erosion sent "chunks of concrete flying and creating a 200-foot-long, 30-foot-deep hole" that continued to grow, causing the evacuation order. "Engineers don't know what caused the cave-in that is expected to keep getting bigger until it reaches bedrock," noted the AP.

Had the spillway collapsed totally, a 30-foot-wall of water from the reservoir would have engulfed surrounding areas.

Thousands of residents grabbed what they could on minutes' notice, only to be stuck for hours on roads jammed with bumper-to-bumper traffic as they tried to flee. Hotels as far away as San Francisco--150 miles away--reported being inundated with calls.

Some 700 people were able to find cots at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds in nearby Chico, with at least as many sleeping in their cars in the fairground parking lot. Others drove their cars to higher ground and slept in them, hoping they would be able to avoid floodwaters if the worst-case scenario did occur. Schools in the affected areas were closed at the beginning of the week.

Thankfully, hours after the evacuation order was given, the crisis had lessened, and the water level of Lake Oroville receded--at least temporarily.

But the threat of new storms to come this week has left authorities scrambling to shore up the damaged spillway--using dump trucks and helicopters to drop bags of rocks into the gaping hole in an attempt to prevent further erosion.

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THE CRISIS is illustrating the serious threat that long-neglected and crumbling infrastructure poses to human life and the environment, even in the world's wealthiest nation--especially in an era of changing and unpredictable weather patterns caused by climate change.

Bill Croyle, the Department of Water Resources' acting director, told the Associated Press, "This is mother nature kind of kicking us a few times here."

But it's not "Mother Nature" that's to blame. It's state officials who made a deliberate calculation years ago that the safety of residents wasn't worth the cost of updating and repairing the dam.

Environmental activists and local water officials have long warned about the potential for this exact scenario. SFGate.com reported that a 2002 analysis by the Yuba County Water Agency said use of the auxiliary spillway would cause "severe erosion" and deposit so much debris in the river that downstream structures could be damaged.

As the San Jose Mercury News reported, a coalition of environmental groups attempted in 2005 to:

persuade the federal government to require the state to cover the emergency spillway with concrete. But the agency that was relicensing the dam, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, declined after opposition from the state Department of Water Resources and the State Water Contractors, a group of 27 water agencies who were concerned about the cost.

"It's a damn good idea to have an emergency spillway," said Ron Stork, policy director with Friends of the River, a Sacramento environmental group that joined the Sierra Club and others to make the request. "But it's cheaper to not pour concrete there."

Despite this earlier warning, an inspection in July 2015 deemed the dam and spillway safe--but, noted SFGate.com, "experts did not walk the sloped surface to look for cracks and other potential problems, state records show." Authorities apparently settled for a "visual inspection from some distance [that] indicated no visible signs of concrete deficiencies."

Authorities now estimate that repairing the damaged spillway will take four to five months and cost $100 million or more.

That doesn't include other costs, like the potential loss of millions of salmon from the Feather River hatchery as a result of asphyxiation from the large amount of mud and debris released into the water. The Feather River hatchery produces half of all the salmon harvested by commercial and sport fishermen--and is a key component of California's multimillion-dollar salmon industry.

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THIS NEAR-catastrophe highlights the decrepit state of much of U.S. infrastructure and the ridiculous priorities of a society which is willing to spend billions on a "war on terror," while simultaneously neglecting something as important as a structure whose failure could potentially cause the deaths of tens of thousands of people.

Last December, Barack Obama signed the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act (WIIN), a $12 billion infrastructure package for water projects around the country. But according to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials, rehabilitating and repairing federal dams will cost more than $57 billion.

In its last report in 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers, which publishes a comprehensive report card on the state of America's infrastructure every four years, graded American infrastructure as a "D+". The group estimates that by the year 2020, the cumulative investment needed to maintain, repair and update infrastructure in the U.S. will top $3.6 trillion.

When it comes to the country's dams, the report found that:

Dams...earned a grade of D. The average age of the 84,000 dams in the country is 52 years old. The nation's dams are aging and the number of high-hazard dams is on the rise. Many of these dams were built as low-hazard dams protecting undeveloped agricultural land. However, with an increasing population and greater development below dams, the overall number of high-hazard dams continues to increase, to nearly 14,000 in 2012. The number of deficient dams is currently more than 4,000.

As climate change produces more severe and unpredictable weather, the stress placed on the country's aging water system will only become more pronounced. California, which suffered a record five-year drought, has now had the rainiest year in its history, contributing to the recent crisis. And it is considered one of the most vigilant states when it comes to maintaining dams and water systems.

Ordinary people suffer the consequences when infrastructure that has been neglected for decades is overwhelmed.

"We are not maintaining the water infrastructure adequately," Peter H. Gleick, a founder of the Pacific Institute, told the New York Times. "We are not maintaining it in Flint, Mich., and we are not maintaining it at our big dams in California. We need to spend more money and time on maintaining these."