Monday, March 20, 2017

Oroville Dam crisis is not urban v. rural policy making

Victor Davis Hanson, a self-described "fifth-generation rural Californian" wrote an Op-Ed in the LA Times titled "The Oroville Dam disaster is yet another example of California's decline." Hanson frames the imminent failure of the Dam as a failure of the state legislature and state planners to provide funding for infrastructure in rural areas.
State lawmakers spend their time obsessing over minutia: a prohibition against free grocery bags and rules against disturbing bobcats. When they do turn their attention to development, they tend to pick projects that serve urban rather than rural populations — for example, that boondoggle of a bullet train whose costs keep climbing even as the project falls years behind schedule.
He may be correct to say that California's infrastructure as a whole has fallen into a state of disrepair. It misrepresents the issue to frame it as an urban versus rural issue for a number of reasons. At the very least it oversimplifies the issue and ultimately suggests that rural and urban concerns can never be aligned.

Oroville Dam Background
Oroville Dam stands at 770 feet, the tallest dam in the United States, and provides water storage, hydroelectricity generation, and flood control for the state. Since 1968, the dam has held flow from the Feather River to create Lake Oroville Reservoir with a total capacity of 3.5million acre feet.

In early February 2017, following a period of heavy rain, Lake Oroville was well over capacity. The overflow water eroded the land faster than predicted and broke a hole in the spillway, eroding land to the side. Structural managers instead opened the emergency spillway, causing additional erosion and damage around the dam. While the main dam is not threatened, if the erosion on either spillway reaches the top, it would cause the gate to collapse, releasing uncontrolled, life-threatening floods. The water is currently under control.


Dam Infrastructure Monitoring
First, the dam is not an overlooked infrastructure project. It has to be checked every year by state and Federal agency specialists.

The Bureau of Reclamation operates Safety Evaluation of Existing Dams (SEED) program under the Safety of Dams Act. This risk assessment integrates engineering analyses and the consensus of a specialized review board to meet the SEED program objectives: assess safety of dams, protect potentially affected public safety, and allocate resources efficiently.

The California Department of Water Resources, Division of Safety of Dams monitors dams and dam proposals in the state. This monitoring and risk assessment role is identical to that of the Bureau of Reclamation.

Further, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) regulates dam safety at hydropower plants. FERC was active in the dam' building before and during construction. Commission engineers continue to inspect it on a regular basis.

Note that there are reports that Oroville Dam's last inspection was done at a distance rather than undergoing a close visual inspection. It is unclear why. There are parties that claim that this could have been an avoidable emergency. However the cause is still undetermined and the state has not neglected their responsibilities to keep the dam.

Dam Urban/Rural Interconnectedness 
Second, Oroville Dam doe snot only serve rural populations. It is a core facet of the California State Water Project (SWP), the statewide water system. The SWP is the largest public water and power utilities project in the world and provides drinking water to more than 23 million people. This system redistributes water from Northern California to the San Francisco Bay Area, Greater Los Angeles, Greater San Diego, Inland Empire, Santa Clara Valley, San Joaquin Valley, and the Central Coast, among other urban and rural populations.

While Hanson paints Oroville Dam as being in a rural area, the dam's failure is not a rural issue. (Note: Oroville has a population of 18,000, hardly rural if measured in terms of low population. In social prestige, it is the county seat of Butte County and it hosts Butte Community College. This author would not support an argument that Oroville is especially rural.)

Oroville Dam main spillway erosion William Croyle, California DWR
A Misplaced Issue Framing
Third, there is no utility in this misplaced framing. No one doubts that the dam's safety is a major concern. However, it is an insult to genuine rural issues such as access to healthcare, drug abuse, and employment opportunities to say that its impending failure is at the cost of urban social programs. This is something that affects all Californians. 

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