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 in saying that California's infrastructure as a whole has fallen into a state of disrepair, but he misrepresents the issue by framing it as an urban versus rural issue. At the very least Hanson oversimplifies the issue and ultimately suggests that rural and urban concerns can never be aligned.

Oroville Dam Background
Oroville Dam, at 770 feet, is the tallest dam in the United States, and it 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 3.5 million 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 established spillway, crumbling land to the side. Structural managers instead opened the alternate, 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 the 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.

The cause of the damage is still undetermined. It has yet to be proven that the state neglected their responsibilities to keep the dam. Indeed, some reports show that Oroville Dam's last inspection was done at a distance rather than undergoing a close visual inspection. Some parties claim that this could have been an avoidable emergency.

Dam Urban/Rural Interconnectedness 
Second, Oroville Dam does not serve only rural populations. Hanson paints Oroville Dam as being in a rural area. Oroville has a population of 18,000, arguably 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.

Oroville Dam 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.

Oroville Dam main spillway erosion William Croyle, California DWR
A Misplaced 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. The soundness of the dam affects all Californians. 

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