Faulty Dam in California Almost Floods Area, Might Still


We restrained ourselves from making a dam pun, it was really hard.

Meredith Mclaughlin
Copy Editor

On Saturday, Feburary 7th, water from Lake Oroville breached an emer­gency spillway of the Oroville dam, po­tentially threatening the cities residing in the Feather River Basin and leading to a rush evacuation of 180,000 peo­ple. The increased rain and snow that California has been receiving this win­ter at first seems like a blessing, con­sidering the major drought the state has been in for the past five years. Un­fortunately these increased water lev­els have revealed major issues in the Oroville dam, particularly in the main and emergency spillways.

A spillway is meant to provide con­trolled releases from flooded dams, however the main spillway at the Oro­ville Dam was discovered to have a 45 ft deep crater in a section of the spill­way’s concrete lane, making it unsafe for use. Without the main spillway being operable, the water began to overflow into one of the emergency spillways, which, unlike the fully concrete main one, is mostly just a clear dirt path with a concrete lip. However the flow of water over the emergency spillway was beginning to erode the concrete lip and the dirt path, posing a major threat to the people in the Feather River Basin. It was the emergency spillway’s ero­sion that led officials to call a manda­tory evacuation on Sunday. Because the emergency spill­way’s erosion prob­lem was more likely to flood, the dam operators chose to release the excess water through the main spillway in­stead. After releas­ing 100,000 cubic feet per seconds worth of water for two days, officials were confident that the immediate threat was gone and on Tuesday turned the mandatory evacua­tion into a warning.

Unfortunately, more rain has been predicted for this week, and while origi­nally the amount of rain was predict­ed to be low, new forecasts predict a whopping 10 inches of rain. In an effort to make the emergency spillway usable again, workers and helicopters have been placing tons of boulders along its path to reduce the risk of erosion, and recently the state has been bringing in concrete trucks in order to beat the upcoming storms. Officials hope that the main spillway will be able to hold up through California’s rain season without needing to rely on the emergen­cy dam, however that’s easier said than done considering the mas­sive 45 ft deep, 300 ft wide gap that’s still taking up a large part of the spill­way. Another issue comes in the form of the Hyatt Power Plant, found at the base of the dam. If damaged, not only would locals lose their drinking water, but it could also damage the surround­ing environment. Residents have been returning to their homes under the as­surance that the risk of flooding is very low, and hopefully with the amount of work the state is doing the dam will be as fit as it can be for the incoming rains.

The Oroville Dam crisis is represen­tative of the greater problem the Unit­ed States has with its infrastructure. Three different environmental groups evaluated the emergency spillway in 2005 and requested that it be reno­vated with concrete in order to avoid, you guessed it, erosion. However the government was unable to look this far into the future and decided taxpayer money could be used in other places. The Oroville Dam is not alone in its un­fortunate state of decay; the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the U.S. a D for our maintenance of our dams. Hopefully this event will be a wakeup call for our government to start fixing our dams, but, considering how mas­sive this issue is, it isn’t likely we’ll wake up to brand new dams anytime soon.


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