“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:
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.