Oroville Dam warns about importance of investing in infrastructure

Rob McMillan, a television reporter from Los Angeles, reports from the overflowing Feather River Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017, in Oroville, Calif. Workers are rushing to repair the barrier at the nation's tallest dam after authorities on Sunday ordered the evacuation for everyone living below the lake amid concerns the spillway could fail and send water roaring downstream. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/ AP)

Almost 200,000 residents near Oroville Lake evacuated their homes at the order of the California Office of Emergency Services an multiple other law enforcement agencies due to the possibility of the Oroville Dam’s emergency spillway failing. Standing at 770 feet tall, the Oroville dam is the tallest in the United States. Continuous flood control released onto the spillway caused by recent heavy rains damaged the dam’s main spillway, and engineers were forced to limit its use.

This marked the first use of emergency spillway since the dam’s construction on Feb. 11. To ensure that the emergency spillway was not eroded to the extent that it would endanger the dam, the use of the main spillway was increased. However, now both the main and emergency spillways are in need of repair, and more heavy rains are predicted for this region in the near future. This possibility for disaster highlights some risks that have endangered property and lives.

In 2005, the government received a motion filed by three environmental groups – the Friends of the River, the Sierra Club and the South Yuba Citizens League – concerning the Oroville Dam’s relicensing. This motion expressed concerns with the state of the emergency spillway and asked federal officials to reinforce the spillway with concrete. This motion cited concern for an event that nearly happened on Sunday and still could happen in the near future. It claims that the state of the emergency spillway could result in a “loss of crest control,” which would endanger many lives. With this situation seeming like a possibility, the dismissal of this warning seems both ignorant and reckless. This narrowly avoided disaster must be a wakeup call for those who oversee infrastructure. If any group sees a reason for concern regarding infrastructure and public safety, it is necessary that it be properly investigated. Risks should be minimized.

Perhaps one of the reasons this warning was ignored was because it concerned the emergency, or “back-up” mechanisms, which take millions of dollars to fix. Ron Stork, a flood management expert and the author for the motion to strengthen the emergency spillway with concrete, stated that the pushback was that they would “never use that spillway.” While it is true that the hope for emergency infrastructure is that it will never be needed, it needs to be viable and strong, and those building the infrastructure must assume it could be used at some point. The dismissal of the motion to armor the spillway in 2005 was because it would take millions to complete. Yet this event has led to over a hundred million dollars in damages. Not strengthening the emergency infrastructure not only caused evacuated residents, but also resulted in higher costs than the original fortifications.

This event also highlights the focus and resources our government must put into updating and repairing our infrastructure. As of 2013, 14,726 of the country’s 87,359 dams were considered to have high hazard potentials, meaning that if the dams were to fail, the result would be human casualties. This does not mean that those dams are in poor condition, but it emphasizes the necessity that they must be maintained and their safety measures updated.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the average age of the country’s dams is 52 years. The group gave California a D for the conditions of its dams, levees and flood control infrastructure, and they gave many dams throughout the nation this same grade. This event reminds us that infrastructure impacts and can risk people’s lives if it is not maintained, and this should alert us to the fact that resources must be dedicated to prevent these situations.

On Tuesday, the evacuation advisement was rescinded, yet these reminders remain. Our infrastructure is more than tools or resources; its management aids us, and its disrepair endangers us.


Alyssa Luis is a weekly columnist for The Daily Campus opinion section. She can be reached via email at alyssa.luis@uconn.edu.