Near Miss at Oroville Points to Climate Impacts, Failing Infrastructure
Last week’s near miss and mass evacuation at California’s 770-foot Oroville Dam was being portrayed as a result of climate change and an example of neglected infrastructure last week, as the state braced for another round of storms amid assurances that the country’s tallest dam would hold.
“Lake Oroville is as full as it has ever been, and remains vulnerable: We’re still in the peak of the rainy season, and more rain is on the way,” reported meteorologist Eric Holthaus. “And it’s not just Oroville. Major reservoirs ring the Central Valley, and nearly every one is full, or nearly so,” he notes. “Several levees statewide are seeping, and workers intentionally breached one along the Mokelumne River in Northern California over the weekend to relieve pressure. The levee system was simply not designed to be this stressed for extended periods of time.”
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While “California’s climate has always been extreme,” Holthaus adds, “what’s happening right now is just ridiculous. We are witnessing the effects of climate change play out, in real time.” Writing last Thursday, he warned that a series of five major storm waves in the course of a week could dump another foot of rainfall on the region.
And that’s a marker for climate change.
“Climate science and basic physics suggest we are already seeing a shift in the delicate rainfall patterns of the West Coast,” Holthaus explains. “A key to understanding how California’s rainy season is changing lies in understanding what meteorologists call ‘atmospheric rivers,’” which already cause about 80% of the state’s flooding. While those patterns are changing, “we’ve built dams based on old weather patterns, not for the extremes we’re now seeing. A clear problem emerges when we manage society for how things were, not how things are.”
The Washington Post reports that the U.S. government received but downplayed warnings that Oroville’s emergency spillway was unsafe, while the New York Times editorial board sees the episode as a “parable on infrastructure” and “the latest wake-up call that American public works are crumbling after decades of neglect.” It notes that the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country an average grade of D in its most recent infrastructure report card, adding that “the average age of the country’s 84,000 dams is 52 years, and 70% of them will be more than a half-century old by 2020. Groups like American Rivers argue that many of these dams should be removed in the interest of public safety.”
“We are not maintaining the water infrastructure adequately,” agreed the Pacific Institute’s Peter Gleick, in an interview with the Times. “We are not maintaining it in Flint, Michigan, and we are not maintaining it at our big dams in California.”
But on Grist, Holthaus warns that “this is about more than just spending money to fix up our aging dams. The entirety of our country’s infrastructure needs to be reevaluated with the understanding that we have a unique opportunity to reimagine our shared future. If things are rapidly changing anyway, we might as well build a future consistent with our new weather reality.”