damaged Oroville Dam main spillway

Watery World

Last month, the weather disrupted my life.

Unexpected Warning

I did not think much about the heavy winter rains this year until I came across this notice on the Weather Channel website one Saturday in February:

 

 

I have seen flood watches before, but what concerned me about this notice is that a flood warning on this website means “flooding is actually occurring or is imminent in the warning area.” It also talked about how “we may see flooding in locations which haven’t been impacted in many years.”

It was difficult waiting to see what would happen. Fortunately, there were only about two days of stormy, windy weather instead of the four they predicted. There was some flooding in areas near two local rivers but not in my immediate vicinity. Another nearby river called the American River was filled up with water, but the water did not overflow from its channel. When I drove by it this morning, the banks of the river are still underwater, and the trees on the banks of the river are still mostly submerged. There is another area used for flood control between West Sacramento and Davis called the Yolo Bypass. The highway running through it is called the Yolo Causeway. After the last heavy rain, the Yolo Bypass looked like a miniature sea:

 

 

The Doom of the Dam

I would like to believe that I have nothing to worry about now that the flood warning has ended, especially since it has not rained very much for the past three weeks. However, our flooding concerns are far from over. Shortly before receiving the flood warning, I started hearing about problems with Oroville Dam. At first, I thought I would not be affected by it. I checked online and found out that Sacramento is about 70 miles away from the dam. It was not until I saw a map that I realized that Sacramento is located 70 miles south – that is, downstream – of the Oroville Dam.

 

feathermap-01-revised
Feathermap-01.png By Shannon1 (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Massive Damage

The following photos show what happened to the main and emergency spillways of the dam after a period of heavy rain in February. The damage was so severe that dam failure seemed imminent, so the local sheriff issued a mandatory evacuation  for Oroville and nearby communities.

Main Spillway

This is the main spillway where excess water is supposed to flow into the Feather River when the dam gets full.

photo of Oroville spillway damage and debris
Oroville Dam spillway debris in Feather River 27 February 2017.jpg
By Dale Kolke / California Department of Water Resources (California Department of Water Resources) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
An aerial view of the damaged Oroville Dam spillway site and the huge debris field in the diversion pool just below the spillway. The California Department of Water Resources gradually reduced the outflow from the spillway from 50,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) to zero on February 27, 2017. The reduction allows work to begin to remove the debris and reduce water surface elevation in the diversion pool, so the Edward Hyatt Powerplant can go operational. This will allow for better management of reservoir levels during the upcoming spring runoff season. Photo taken February 27, 2017.

Emergency (Auxiliary) Spillway

This is the emergency spillway (now renamed auxiliary spillway to sound less dire and threatening). It is basically a hillside. It was never tested before this year, and there is no way to control the flow of water down the emergency spillway once the water level of the dam rises above 901 feet, which happened in February.

Oroville Dam aerial of damage 16 Feb 2017.jpg
By California Department of Water Resources (California Department of Water Resources) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons Aerial view of damage to the Oroville Dam during the 2017 Oroville Dam crisis, with erosion caused during use of the emergency spillway in the middle of the image and the crater in the main spillway in the upper left corner.

 An Ongoing Slow-Motion Crisis

It makes me uneasy to think that this massive dangerous wreck is hanging above me. I am also bothered by the speculation that the land where the spillways are located is badly eroded and may collapse. While I am probably not in as much danger as the people living closer to the dam, I have read that the storage capacity of Oroville Dam is approximately 3.5 million acre-feet of water. If that dam breaks, it is possible that all of that water moving at great speed could make its way down to Sacramento and beyond. Would there even be enough time to evacuate if this awful scenario occurs?

What is frustrating about this situation is that it probably could have been prevented if the dam had been properly maintained. In 2005, federal and state officials ignored a warning about the flood risk [1] posed by Oroville Dam because the hillside where its spillways are located was not reinforced against erosion. In recent years, the dam underwent minimal repair work and inspections according to an article in The Atlantic:

As for the primary spillway, the state did some repair work around the area of the collapse in 2013, CBS Sacramento reports. The last state inspection was in July 2015, but workers did not closely inspect the concrete, the Redding Record Searchlight notes, instead eyeing it from a distance and concluding it was safe. [2]

Now it is literally costing California millions of dollars a day to hire crews working around the clock to clear debris and make repairs to the dam. They are trying to patch up both spillways with concrete and make other repairs using caulk, gravel, boulders, and other materials. They have also managed to get the Hyatt Power Plant running, which is a hydroelectric plant located a short distance from the main spillway. It can move water out of the dam at a rate of about 14,000 cubic feet per second (CFS). They are hoping to use the power plant to release water from the dam so that they can delay using the main spillway.

While I admire the efforts of the 500 or so workers working day and night to try to fix this dam, their repairs may not be enough to hold together the broken remnants of the main spillway if the dam faces another heavy deluge of water. Another problem is that water going down the main spillway could bring down new debris into the river channel that they worked so hard to clear, and the power plant could get flooded and go offline again. A UC Berkeley engineering professor emeritus named Robert Brea described the previoius maintenance work to the dam as “‘patch and pray,‘” [3] and I think this is a fitting description of the emergency repair work being done to Oroville Dam now.

More Water in a Different Form

The main reason we have had a reprieve from further flood damage is that the weather pattern has changed. The heavy rains have stopped at least for now, although it could still rain between now and June. What I think the people in charge of the dam are more concerned about is the snow melt that occurs during the spring and summer. There is record snow pack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and this week the daytime temperatures are going to rise both in the valleys and the mountains. As you can see in the video below, there are literally tall walls of ice in the mountains. When the temperatures rise, these walls of ice and the other snow in the Sierra Nevada area will start melting, and the melting snow will find its way into the rivers. This is a concern not only for the Oroville Dam region but also for other rivers and reservoirs in the Sacramento Valley.

 

 

Water Damage

The future of Oroville Dam and the people living downstream from it remains uncertain. Will the dam make it through this snow runoff? What will happen if it does not? So many people have already been adversely affected by this crisis even though the dam is still standing. Based on reading comments from people who live in Oroville and nearby communities, I get the impression that there is a general distrust of the California Department of Water Resources to provide residents with accurate information if anything goes seriously wrong with the dam again. The sheriff who ordered the first evacuation shares their distrust. Because of this distrust and the ongoing doubts about the safety of the dam, he has not lifted the evacuation warning for the residents of Oroville and nearby communities, and he even organized a new and more organized evacuation plan [4].

Recently, some farmers living downstream from the dam suffered damage to their orchards after the riverbanks of the Feather River collapsed due to the sudden lowering of the water level at Oroville Dam [5]. I have read the California Department of Water Resources is investigating this situation, but I am not sure if the farmers will get any compensation for their losses.

In addition, the taxpayers of California are going to suffer paying for a mess largely created by the neglect of state and other government officials. Their usual solution to throw money at a problem that could endanger their political careers provides little comfort to the people living here in California who now have to endure a crisis that could cause them to lose not only their property and their way of life but also their lives.

 

Sources:

[1] “Oroville Dam: Feds and state officials ignored warnings 12 years ago” by Paul Rogers – The Mercury News

[2] “How Did the Oroville Dam Crisis Get So Dire?” by David A. Graham – The Atlantic

[5] “Riverbanks collapse after Oroville Dam spillway shut off” – San Francisco Chronicle

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4 thoughts on “Watery World

    1. The dam will get fixed, but unfortunately it will not be fixed quickly according to the latest plan from the Department of Water Resources. I sent you the latest news in my email to you.

      Thanks for your kind words, but I am not sure everything will return to normal here in California. The state officials just hiked up the gas tax 12 cents per gallon and increased the car registration fees based on car value supposedly for infrastructure repairs . I don’t think that they are through raising our taxes, especially if President Trump goes through with his plan to cut off federal funds to California now that the state officials have passed legislation making our state a sanctuary state for illegal immigrants. I guess we will have to wait and see what happens.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Thanks for your sympathy, Ralph. It looks like it is going to get more expensive to live in California than it already is. 😦 California is already hurting for money, and the state legislature is trying to pass bills for California to have its own universal health coverage and a $400 million upgrade for the state voting system. They never stop wanting to spend money . . . : (

          Liked by 1 person

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