Oroville Dam Crisis is a Call to Action on U.S. Water Infrastructure

by |February 20, 2017
A worker walks down the damaged roadway near the Oroville Dam emergency spillway. The California Department of Water Resources continues to examine and repair the erosion with more than 125 construction crews working around the clock. Photo: Brian Baer/ California Department of Water Resources

A worker walks down the damaged roadway near the Oroville Dam emergency spillway. The California Department of Water Resources continues to examine and repair the erosion with more than 125 construction crews working around the clock. Photo: Brian Baer/ California Department of Water Resources

Last week, nearly 200,000 residents living near the nation’s tallest dam were evacuated from their homes after damages to both the main and auxiliary spillways led to concerns that the latter would fail entirely, flooding the surrounding communities with billions of gallons of water. Although the immediate crisis has passed and the evacuees were allowed to return to their homes, the auxiliary spillway is in need of critical repairs and residents have been urged to remain prepared in the event of additional heavy storms in the area.

The swift response from civil servants in the State of California averted a potential disaster there, but the problems of aging and neglected infrastructure remain. In its 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, the American Society for Civil Engineers gave America’s dams a grade of “D (Poor),” noting that age and increases in population and development was leading to a steady increase in high-hazard dams across the country. Failure of a high-hazard dam would result in loss of life and/or significant economic losses; at the time, the ASCE estimated that rehabilitating only the most critical dams would cost the U.S. $21 billion, “a cost that continues to rise as maintenance, repair, and rehabilitation are delayed.”

Hoover Dam. Photo: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

An updated report will be released on March 9, but in an op-ed for CNN, Columbia Water Center director Upmanu Lall points out that while large investments in water infrastructure such as the Hoover Dam were once considered economically vital, “in recent decades funding for such projects and their maintenance has virtually vanished.” Lall suggests that we see the Oroville crisis as a call to action to evaluate and address the challenges facing the nation’s dam infrastructure. “The striking images of the Oroville crisis remind us that these dangers are not abstract problems,” he writes. “Dam failure can lead to cascading failures of critical infrastructure…As dams and other infrastructure have weakened, development on flood plains has also heightened our flood risk overall.”

Speaking to Undark Magazine, Water Center postdoctoral research scientist Michelle Ho elaborates further, noting that such issues are not new, but that oversight and management problems have stymied efforts to address them, raising the risk of failure. “The intersection of aging dams,” she says, “particularly inadequately monitored ones, and increased populations living on dam and levee-protected flood plains increases the risk of failure and heightens the impacts of failure.”

Upmanu Lall is director of the Columbia Water Center and the Alan and Carol Silberstein Professor of Earth and Environmental Engineering and Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics

Upmanu Lall, director of the Columbia Water Center.

In the wake of the Oroville crisis, and with nearly 13,000 U.S. dams currently classified as high hazard by the National Performance of Dams database at Stanford University, addressing the challenges facing U.S. dam infrastructure appear daunting. However, Lall and Ho say there is good news: not only can the U.S. fix the problems of its aging infrastructure, but the process presents an opportunity to implement a comprehensive water infrastructure plan. In a new paper, co-authored by water managers and engineers in both the public and private sectors, they advocate a holistic approach to infrastructure planning. An independent assessment of dams and dam safety, they argue, along with a streamlining of oversight procedures, will help inform a water storage strategy that addresses not only safety concerns, but economic, climate, and population needs as well.  “These problems are fixable,” Lall writes, “with adequate monitoring and funding to address dam safety issues across the country, regardless of whether the dam is owned by federal, state, local or private entities.”

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