Reactions to Oroville Dam problems

February 13, 2017 9:03pm
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•  Experts, observers and opinion leaders start weighing in

•  “Americans only think about water infrastructure at moments of failure”

With the immediate threat of a dam failure and catastrophic flooding apparently averted, experts are starting to offer opinions and ideas about the dam holding back Lake Oroville.

• Barbara Barrigan-Parilla, executive director, Restore the Delta

“The [San Jose] Mercury News is reporting that Federal and State officials ignored warnings 12 years ago. Three environmental groups — the Friends of the River, the Sierra Club and the South Yuba Citizens League — filed a motion with the federal government on Oct. 17, 2005, as part of Oroville Dam’s relicensing process, urging federal officials to require that the dam’s emergency spillway be armored with concrete, rather than remain as an earthen hillside. They warned that the spillway could erode during heavy winter rains and cause a catastrophe.

“FERC rejected that request, however, after the state Department of Water Resources, and the State Water Contractors argued that they would likely have had to pay the bill for the upgrades. They said the upgrades were unnecessary. The State Water Contractors & Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s outsized influenced on DWR to not upgrade the emergency spillway is a story that must be thoroughly investigated once the emergency has passed.”

• Megan Mullin, associate professor of environmental politics at Duke University

“The bold efforts of water engineers to avert disaster in California demonstrate that maintaining a strong infrastructure means investing not only in concrete, but also in human expertise.

“Americans only think about water infrastructure at moments of failure. The nation’s overwhelming success in delivering safe, clean water to communities and protecting lives and property from dangerous floods rarely lands on the front page.

“When politicians talk about infrastructure investment, they typically want to claim credit for shiny new projects. Infrastructure maintenance is costly and offers fewer political rewards. In the current environment, it’s easier for politicians to cast blame for infrastructure failure than to make the kind of public investments that benefit all communities.

“Whether you live in Flint, Oroville, Miami or any other American community, the disrepair of aging infrastructure is a threat to lives and economic growth.”

• Adrienne Alvord, western states director, Union of Concerned Scientists

“The Oroville Dam crisis is dramatic evidence that California must plan for more extreme weather events when designing and building water infrastructure projects because the types of flooding that we have witnessed in recent days will become more frequent due to climate change.

“As we’re witnessing now, the risks to lives and property are very real, and the costs for repairing severely damaged infrastructure is much higher than investing in resilient projects from the start. The damage to the Oroville Dam spillways is a case in point of the need for stronger design criteria. Prior warnings to make safety improvements to the dam’s structures may well have averted this crisis if they had been heeded.

“Over the past year, we have worked hard to persuade the Department of Water Resources to incorporate the type of science that would help avoid these kinds of catastrophes in the future. In the end, we were baffled that an analysis of more extreme events was not required for new dam projects funded by public dollars through the California water bond.

“This crisis highlights the absolute necessity for the Department of Water Resources and the California Water Commission, as they start to evaluate new water project proposals that are being funded by $2.7 billion in bond funds, to include specifications in their project proposals to handle extreme weather events like the one that led to the spillway damages. Such events are much more likely to occur as global warming intensifies.”

• U.S. Sens. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris in a letter to President Donald Trump

“The series of powerful winter storms caused significant and widespread damage across California, and hundreds of Californians were forced to evacuate their homes.

“The situation remains dire, especially in the areas downriver from Oroville Lake, where damage to the main spillway and concerns over the structural integrity of the emergency spillway have led to the evacuation of 188,000 residents. Severe weather is likely to continue, and while federal, state, and local authorities are doing all they can to prepare, it is essential that the federal government be prepared to step in should assistance be requested.

“Due to the severe damage caused by the series of storms, as well as the compounded impact of other major disasters that have impacted California in the past year, the state is requesting $162.3 million in public assistance pursuant to Section 401 of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act.

“Federal disaster assistance will provide essential support to help communities recover from the events in early January, and will allow state and local authorities to repair public infrastructure and public facilities.

“We respectfully ask that you declare a major disaster for the state of California and approve the state’s request for disaster assistance.”

• California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has issued a consumer alert concerning price gouging.

“California’s price gouging law protects people impacted by an emergency from illegal price gouging on gas, food, housing, and other essential supplies. I urge hotels, gas stations, and other businesses operating in and around the evacuation area to understand and comply with the law, and I encourage anyone who has information regarding illegal price gouging to report it to our office.

“California’s anti-price gouging statute, Penal Code Section 396, becomes effective immediately after the Governor or a local official declares a state of emergency. Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency related to the dam auxiliary spillway incident on February 12th, and the area is also subject to a storm-related disaster declaration that was issued in January.”

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