The Oroville disaster represents a big dam problem.
Engineers and environmentalists saw issues coming. Now a "nightmare scenario" is in play.
Regarding the Oroville disaster, California water districts refused to pay the cost it would take to pave the spillway; now flooded, it is quickly eroding, which is what engineers and environmentalists have been warning would happen for decades.
With the water pooling beneath the weir holding the dam back, a "nightmare scenario" is in play: 23 million people and the entire San Joaquin Valley could lose water if the thing breaks.
As climate change progresses, expect many more Oroville Dam disasters.
"The situation at Oroville Dam comes as much of California is suffering from climate whiplash," following a rapid switch from drought to record-breaking precipitation.
That kind of extreme weather is closely linked with climate change. Moreover, dams like Oroville are generally calibrated to withstand only historic levels of precipatation. With climate change expected to yield new record highs, that assumption looks deadly.
Oroville Dam and America's water infrastructure, by the numbers
4,000: Parties with major water rights in California, where a thorny gridlock presides over the state's water supply.
$20 billion: Value of commerce passing through chokepoint Lock and Dam 52 on the Ohio River, which takes 15-20 hours to pass due to underinvestment.
180,000: Evacuees on tenterhooks waiting to see if their homes will be destroyed by dam failure in Oroville.
120: Dogs registered at the Chico Red Cross.
50: Feet the lake behind the dam rose in a matter of days before the spillover.
8 million: Salmon that live in Lake Oroville, comprising 30% of the state's $4 billion salmon stock.
1/3: Americans who may lose access to affordable water if price increases continue for five years.
D: Grade from American Society of Civil Engineers given to America's water infrastructure.
Oroville presents ambiguous evidence for dam advocates and opponents.
California dam politics are darn contentious. For example, environmentalists have been fighting for decades to dismantle the Hetch-Hetchy Reservoir, created when a valley adjacent to Yosemite–and allegedly as beautiful–was flooded and dammed to provide water for San Francisco.
The basic argument is that most of the nation's dams are extraneous and outdated, artifacts of a bygone age that almost inevitably destroy river ecosystems. Plenty of people will see Oroville as evidence that dams are ticking time bombs, capable of frightening catastrophe upon failure.
But others will take the opposite tack, arguing that Northern California needs more dams, not fewer, to deal with the conversion of its water sources from snowpack to rainfall in a warming climate.
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