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Denial is a River in California: Can Oroville Spark New Dam Building?

By -- March 3, 2017

“Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt” – Mark Twain

“Consider a narrow river valley below a high dam, such that if the dam burst, the resulting flood of water would drown people for a considerable distance downstream. When attitude pollsters ask people downstream of the dam how concerned they are about the dam’s bursting, it’s not surprising that fear of a dam burst is lowest far downstream, and increases among residents increasingly close to the dam.

Surprisingly, though … the concern falls off to zero as you approach closer to the dam! That is, the people living immediately under the dam, the ones most certain to be drowned in a dam burst, profess unconcern. That’s because of psychological denial: the only way to preserve one’s sanity while looking up everyday at the dam is to deny the possibility that it could burst.”

– Jared Diamond, “Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail or Succeed” 

“Seems it never rains in Southern California / Seems I’ve often heard that kind of talk before / It never rains in California, but girl don’t they warn ya? / It pours, man, it pours” – Song lyrics by Albert Hammond, 1972.

The recent near catastrophic failure of the spillways at Oroville Dam in California is more than a story of unpreventable “stuff happens”, as explained by Gov. Jerry Brown. To the contrary, Oroville is an apt metaphor and symbol for California government that continues to be in denial about its dysfunctional water and energy infrastructure policies and priorities.

Sure, one could say in retort that the spillways were engineered with weaknesses to fail-safe. But the same sort of fail-safe engineering of “O-Rings” on the Challenger Space Shuttle resulted in disaster in 1986.

The near failure of the Oroville auxiliary spillway on February 12, 2017, resulted in the evacuation of 200,000 people and mega billions of dollars of infrastructure and human development threatened by catastrophic flooding. Failure to fix the designed weaknesses of the spillways surely was “penny wise but pound foolish” given the enormity of the consequences of failure. Why California policy makers were in denial about this looming disaster- waiting-to-happen when they had ample resources to fix it will be elaborated upon later in this article.

Era of Anti-Dam Building is Over

On January 24, 1987, in an article titled After 85-Years, The Era of Big Dams Nears End, the New York Times boldly declared that the epoch of dam building in America was over. But the near miss at Oroville was a powerful symbolic event that a new era of dam building and infrastructure upgrading can no longer be denied.

The last large catchment dam built in California, the New Melones Dam in Calaveras County, was completed in 1979 by the Federal government (and has now been turned into the first “all green” dam that no longer functions for flood control or agricultural irrigation except in Flood Years). Prior to the now near-inoperable New Melones Dam, the most recent dam built in California was in 1959.

California Proposition 1 in 2015 authorized bond financing for two new catchment dams, the Sites Reservoir and Temperance Flat Dam, but they won’t be completed until around 2030, assuming they are not abandoned due to environmental lawsuits.

Meanwhile Texas authorized its first large dam construction project in decades in 2013, the North Lake Hall Reservoir, and plans to have it completed in 2023, reflecting a 10-year planning and construction cycle compared to 15 years for California. The difference is that in California it minimally takes 5 years to plan and environmentally clear a large dam project assuming no lawsuits.


But before attempting an explanation of why California was in denial about these risks what was the crux of the crisis of the Oroville Spillways?

Potential Slope Failure: Oroville and Vajont Dams

What happened on February 12 was that a wave of foreseeable heavy rainstorms filled the Oroville reservoir to capacity 3.5 months before it was forecasted to be filled in June 2017. Drought is normal in California and is something to be planned for by having at least 4 years of water storage on hand to make it through the four-year drought-one year flood cycle. But California only has about a half year of water storage in its combined state-federal water system so water shortages are structurally man-made not meteorological unless they extend over 4 years.

What happened at Oroville was not a dam failure or necessarily a failure of the main spillway but potential erosion and landslide of the downslope from the auxiliary spillway that might have undercut the spillway wall foundation (see photo here). That is why private contractors quickly moved to buttress the foundation slope of the auxiliary spillway with helicopter drops of riprap rock.

Compounding the potential auxiliary spillway failure is that the transmission line from the hydropower house on the dam ran perpendicular across the same downslope of the auxiliary spillway (see photo here). Thus, the dam could not be drawn down faster by spilling water through the penstock pipe that goes under the dam and spins turbines in the powerhouse for fear that the transmission line towers would topple (see graphic here).

If the auxiliary spillway had failed the result could have been similar to the 1963 breach of the Vajont Dam in Italy caused not by dam failure but by a landslide resulting in 2,000 deaths and a complete wipe out of the town of Longarone off the map (see story and photos here).

Redistribution More Important Than Public Safety

In California there are few real infrastructure “fixes” as much as there is a redistribution of who benefits from the infrastructure from, say, farmers and coastal suburban residents to environmentalists, commercial fishermen, Indian tribes, upscale housing enclaves with beach and wetland views, unions, illegal immigrant trailer park subdivisions and thirsty big coastal cities. Water and energy policy are often not purely based on fixing broken infrastructure or lowering water and power rates, but on how to shift the burden or benefit of some problem from one group to another.

Such policies play the odds of failure of evaluated infrastructure weaknesses such as the spillways at Oroville Dam. Infrastructure defects or deficiencies that don’t have big political payoffs and are not conspicuous tend to be denied a fix or deferred until a crisis emerges. Below is list of some projects where redistribution has been the response:

  • Fixing a Sacramento Delta water interchange and estuary system that “ain’t broken” at a cost of $67 billion to stop environmentalists from creating phantom water shortages for Southern California by lawsuits without “scientific merit”
  • Creating a continuous fish run along a 60-mile reach of the San Joaquin River at a cost of $1 billion (paid by farmers for benefit of commercial fishermen, environmentalists, eco-tourism, etc.).
  • Building an anachronistically slow “bullet train” system possibly using pricey green powered battery storage to create remote exurbs of San Francisco and Los Angeles.
  • Forcing 19 coastal power plants to switch from ocean-water cooling to air cooling systems to make conventional gas-fired and nuclear power less competitive with green power
  • Expanding municipal green energy buying cooperatives (euphemistically called “community choice aggregation”) at the expense of higher energy prices
  • Demolishing 5 dams on the Klamath River (The “Upside-Down River”) while switching to reliance on cheap out-of-state hydropower to balance its unreliable and costly 50 percent green power mandate.
  • “Restoring” coastal wetlands that before DDT and swamp drainage were major public health issues (yellow fever) to enhance view of luxury coastal housing enclaves.
  • Building an arsenic water treatment plant for an unincorporated immigrant enclave of 500 people, living in mostly substandard housing in Lanare, California with a state grant of $3.42 million, that had to be shut down because residents couldn’t afford to pay $54 per month to run the plant.
  • Five water bonds issued by California since 2000 totaling $18.7 billion were mainly spent on environmental projects (“waterless water bonds”).
  • California’s Prop. 1 Water Bond (2015) funds non-water bureaucracies to buy land and fund $30 million to the Ocean Protection Council for jobs for marine biologists.

California is a state in political denial about its underfunded pension system, its chronic budget deficits, the funding of luxury environmental public goods for the wealthy, and the effects that has on postponing infrastructure investments for public safety. This is seen by the ongoing blowouts of underground water lines in the City of Los Angeles and the San Bruno gas line disaster in San Francisco in 2010. Its politicians are too busy funding politically correct infrastructure projects to be focused on public safety hazards. The era of anti-dam building is over but will California deny it?


Wayne Lusvardi previously worked for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California where he conducted a mass valuation of estimated probable property damage loss from dam failures for insurance underwriting purposes and valued residential property damages resulting from flooding due to the cracking of the concrete lining of the Garvey Reservoir in Los Angeles from earthquake damage. The views expressed do not reflect any prior employer.


  1. Wayne Lusvardi  

    You are welcome Jason. Stay tuned to MasterResource.org for more developments.


  2. Suzanne Potter Thomas  

    Thank you Wayne for your informative and superbly written articles… too bad the Sacramento Bee, and every other California newspaper don’t have the balls to publish them! The information you have brought forth needs to be pounded into every Californian’s brains until they “Get It!”
    The state of this State is truly unbelievable and we only have ourselves to blame… we let the patients run this asylum and we need to take it back!
    6th largest GDP in the world and what do we have to show for it? Failing infrastructure galore, corrupt agencies, government and Governor who’s Pet Projects and asinine Global Warming agenda are more important than human lives… IMHO.
    Brown needs to be exiled to Mars where he can create every defunct geothermal power plant, bullet train, delta tunnel, zero carbon footprint and green legacy his cold little Jesuit black heart desires!
    Posting your awesome work on my google+ page.
    Thanks again.


    • Wayne Lusvardi  

      As you probably already know Jerry Brown has a god complex. He believes he is the personification (or shall we say reincarnation because Brown is Buddhist) of the Greek philosopher Aristides. He has striven for a legacy as a wise philosopher-prince by having his public relations team put out comparisons to the Greek philosopher Aristides “The Just” and desperately has wanted to leave a legacy of some sort of infrastructure project with his name on it. Brown is not satisfied with some life hereafter but with a heaven on earth of his creation. Under his administration(s), California’s pension system is just biding time to a meltdown, the so-called balanced budget always runs hidden deficits, the cost of electricity has spiraled all in the name of “clean air” but asthma and lung cancer rates have not dropped, and the state’s infrastructure is finally crumbling as evidenced by the deterioration of the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge at Big Sur, the horrendous condition of state highways in the interior part of the state where there is a Republican constituency who don’t have any clout to get their share of highway funds, the public utilities commission is remiss in putting public safety as a priority as seen in the San Bruno gas line explosion, the notorious water pipeline leaks in the City of Los Angeles are happening because the pension fund takes a lions share of taxes and the public safety problems of our dams and reservoirs can’t even receive a priority over fast tracking the installation of Tesla batteries into the power grid.


  3. Wayne Lusvardi  

    You’re welcome. I can hardly believe it. Someone who actually reads my stuff and indeed “gets’ it”. By the way most writers like myself have to go to MasterResource.org or the Canada Free Press to actually post our writings online. California has a black out to writers like us.


  4. Republic of Thirst, Part 2: The Sites Reservoir and the Future of Water Storage – REAL News 45  

    […] appeared in the earthen emergency overflow spillway, strewn with rip rack rock that had been dropped by helicopter to keep the hillside from collapsing, to save the cities […]


  5. Republic of Thirst, Part 2: The Sites Reservoir and the Future of Water Storage - Red Dot Publications  

    […] appeared in the earthen emergency overflow spillway, strewn with rip rack rock that had been dropped by helicopter to keep the hillside from collapsing, to save the cities […]


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