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“Stuff Happens.” Oroville Dam Crisis Is a Failure of Government

Tuesday February 14th, 2017   •   Posted by K. Lloyd Billingsley at 10:48am PST   •  

A massive spillway failure at Northern California’s Oroville Dam prompted an evacuation order that sent 200,000 people running for shelter anywhere they could find it. As the Sacramento Bee reported, the dam itself “has not been compromised. But experts say that if the emergency spillway collapses, it wouldn’t be much different than a total dam failure. The hillside could quickly erode and empty the lake.” So the crisis is real, but Mother Nature is not to blame. This is clearly a failure of government oversight.

“Engineers have known for decades that Oroville’s backup spillway was unreliable,” ran the headline on the Bee’s lead story on Tuesday. “But California water districts that helped pay for Oroville resisted calls to armor the backup spillway, which would have required construction outlays in the tens of millions of dollars. Environmentalists, meanwhile, opposed an earlier proposal to install gates atop the structure to raise the dam’s elevation and prevent water from topping it during a flood.” The report cited U.S. Rep. John Garamendi as saying, “The emergency spillway remained basically a dirt, soil rock facility, and it worked fine until it had to be used, in which case it didn’t work so well.” Rep. Doris Matsui told the reporters the emergency spillway “did not even have concrete lining on it. . . I would think that would be the first thing you could do.”

After floods in 1997, the Army Corps of Engineers urged the California Department of Water Resources to add gates above the spillway, allowing the reservoir to rise an extra 10 feet. However, “environmental groups opposed the gates, because they would have allowed water to back up into tributaries of Oroville that are protected by federal wild and scenic status.” So the DWR killed the proposal, although Lester Snow, DWR boss at the time, told the Bee that he “hasn’t had time” to review the record.

Governor Jerry Brown told reporters he was unaware of warnings about the emergency spillway and added, “I’m glad we found out about it.” As Brown explained, “We live in a world of risk. Stuff happens and we respond.” As we noted, when Brown was apprised of lingering safety risks on the new $6.5 billion span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, built with cheap Chinese steel, he responded, “I mean, look, shit happens.”

Yes, it does, and those 200,000 evacuees know all about it.

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February 2017