Why Care About the Oroville Dam?
A lack of stewardship of critical infrastructure will lead to national impact, tragedy
I believe that there is a very good chance the Oroville Dam will fail. Multiple failure modes are evolving and significant rains are on their way. If we are lucky, and Oroville survives, the patches hold, the spillway holds, the rock holds, there is still a significant chance a dam will soon fail somewhere in our crumbling national infrastructure network. It is a saddening predetermined reality.
The cost of infrastructure maintenance is great, and society will not shoulder such a cost without a compelling reason. But there are plenty of compelling reasons Oroville should have been maintained, and dams like it.
Your grandchildren will be writing the checks for this failure and the interest on that debt. We all pay.
Good people live in the shadow of that great dam. Perhaps it is they who must pay, to convince us of our responsibility. Someone must. That is what the politics of our infrastructure demand.
Dam breaks are horrible events. All leave, in their paths, a sea of mud and death, loss that defies accounting. Many will calculate cost. None will get it right. There are too many elements of cost, too many elements of loss. The repair, if all goes well, will be $200 million. If it goes badly, the cost will be monumental. If the water breaks free, a whole community will be lost as well as a city, smaller dams, levees, homes and farms, erased from the surface of the earth by our negligence. And lives lost or ruined for nothing. No money saved, no point made — nothing.
The Oroville Dam is a magnificent structure, the highest dam in the United States. It reaches 770 feet above its base to its crest and spans more than 6,900 feet. The reservoir that it retains holds more than 1.5 trillion gallons of water, a particularly precious resource in California, and an asset of untold value. This water irrigates the fertile farms of the valleys, providing crops and produce to the country and the world. The crops, which rely on Oroville for their water, cover 750,000 acres, an area half the size of Delaware.
Dams are expensive and hard to build, but bring other tangible benefits. They contribute to the ecology of an area. They provide a place for birds and fish and wildlife to flourish. The stilling of the waterway provides a clarification of the water as fine particles precipitate out, resulting in an increased clarity and oxygen content of the stream below. California needs this water. From Oroville to Los Angeles, conduits run, carrying this resource to homes, industry, and farms.
If we lose the Oroville Dam, what does it mean to all of us, those of us far away, those of us who have no need for boating or fishing in California? The results of a loss of this magnitude are far-reaching. It will impact the price of produce and electricity. Funds, unavailable from states for maintenance, flow freely from our federal government through FEMA. Your grandchildren will be writing the checks for this failure and the interest on that debt. We all pay.
Men wait with dogs, to scour the filthy ground for victims. Attorneys wait, their expensive pens held in the pockets of clean white shirts to file their motions. Politicians wait for the moment when, at last, they can show the world their worth, to stand on a failed embankment and to say the words that will make them governor.
All wait for funding, for the dollars that wait to be appropriated and sent to fix the ailing dams. All that we need is a price be paid. We are simply waiting for the event.
Are Americans not builders of things? Who have we become that we wait to enter a debit of lives paid in our accounting of infrastructure? Why are we willing to settle for mediocrity? Great men came before us, men who spilled their blood on distant shores, who stacked the rocks and moved the mountains. They left monuments of a once-great society. Will it be lost in our hands, or will we at last shoulder the stewardship of this great land, its bridges and roads, its power plants and airports, its levies and dams?
Oroville is not the problem. Oroville is the manifestation of the problem, a symptom of a problem that runs deep across the nation, a problem wrought of ignorance and uncaring. There are thousands of elements of infrastructure like Oroville waiting for the rain, or the rust. They stand quietly as we make excuses and argue budgets, but a flash point is coming. Why can we not understand?
Scott Cahill has completed hundreds of millions of dollars worth of construction across the eastern U.S. including work on hundreds of dams. He acts as an advocate for responsible stewardship of our infrastructure.