Oroville Debacle: We must do better

The Oroville Debacle: Downstream Communities Evacuated

Emergency Spillway Erodes After Only 36 Hours 

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Oroville's unpaved emergency spillway began to fail after only 36 hours of use, leading to fear of flash flooding. (Photo: Randy Pench, Sacramento Bee)

Heavy rains engorged Sierra rivers last week. A swollen Feather River carried up to 190,000 cubic feet of water per second into "Lake" Oroville, California's second largest reservoir and the cornerstone of the State Water Project which serves cities and farms throughout California. 

Oroville was already almost full (as much as flood control requirements allow), so the Department of Water Resources increased releases to its spillway on Tuesday. Midway down, the high flows began to break up the concrete, sending huge chunks into the air. 

After its principal spillway broke apart under high flow, the Department of Water Resources declared over and over that the Oroville Dam was in no danger. The reservoir's emergency spillway, however, in use for the first time ever, quickly began to fail once it was put to use. 

As a result, the Sheriff gave the order for evacuations of 180,000 people in downstream communities - accentuated with the phrase: "THIS IS NOT A DRILL!".

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Ron Stork, Friends of the River

Hindsight is 20-20. Shouldn't we expect an earthen "spillway" to quickly erode when water starts to pour over it?

But there was foresight as well. As today's Mercury News reports, three environmental groups - Friends of the River, the Sierra Club and the South Yuba River Citizens League - formally urged the State and Federal governments to armor the spillway with concrete. The Merc reports that the recommendation was rejected as unnecessary and expensive. It will be interesting to see how the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Department of Resources and the State Water Contractors (who would ultimately have paid the bill) respond.

"Environmentalists" will feel a certain satisfaction when the so-often ignored recommendations of conservation organizations are later shown to have merit (and let's face it - we aren't known for proposing "concrete" solutions). They should have listened to Ron Stork, Policy Advocate for Friends of the River, who has led the charge for many years on numerous Central Valley flood control issues that are buried in the bowels of bureaucracy. Ron is an admirable fellow - an unapologetic advocate for California's rivers, who doesn't let his passion affect a clear assessment of the facts at hand. 

It seems the most imminent threat has passed. Inflows have subsided and the reservoir has dropped 7 feet over the past 24 hours so water is no longer pouring over the emergency spillway. We still don't know, however, when residents will be allowed to return to their homes. 

We are also expecting more rain later this week, although coming storms are not forecast to be as wet.

It appears that a catastrophic flood will be narrowly averted. First, let's take care of the immediate situation. Then let's look long and hard at the construction and management of all California's large dams and make sure we do better in the future.

When it comes time to restore Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park, there will be no spectacular release of water - the reservoir will be slowly emptied over a year or more. The spectacle will come later, as the Tuolumne River finds its channel, grasses and sedges emerge, trees begin to grow, and all manner of wildlife return. Park visitors will take it all in, perhaps with human footprints lighter than those in Yosemite Valley.