The Oroville Dam Crisis Highlights U.S.'s Infrastructure Failures

Josh Sanburn, on February 14, 2017

More than a decade ago, Ron Stork, a flood management expert and policy adviser for a California environmental group, tried to get state and federal officials to pay attention to potentially catastrophic problems at the Oroville Dam, the tallest in North America. Stork's concerns centered around an earthen spillway designed to divert water from Lake Oroville toward a nearby river if the dam's primary concrete spillway became inundated. Stork and others argued that if officials ever used the unpaved spillway, it could erode enough to compromise a 1,700-foot-long portion of the dam protecting Oroville and other towns downstream, possibly flooding them with billions of gallons of water.

“It is eerily prophetic,” Stork says today about the 2005 motion he authored and filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. “But the pushback was, We’ll never use that spillway. Don’t worry. Everything’s OK up there.”

This weekend, officials used that earthen hillside for the first time after significant rainfall pushed Lake Oroville to record levels and led to a massive hole opening up in the primary concrete spillway nearby. Officials ordered more than 100,000 people to evacuate over concerns that the dam itself could give way but rescinded that order on Tuesday. Meanwhile, the state is working to shore up the earthen spillway with rocks and sandbags in preparation for more rainfall this week.

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