The Oroville Crisis Exposes The Vulnerability Of America's Entire National Dam System

Submitted by Adam Taggart via,

To make sense of the fast-developing situation at California's Oroville Dam, Chris spoke today with Scott Cahill, an expert with 40 years of experience on large construction and development projects on hundreds of dams, many of them earthen embankment ones like the dam at Oroville. Scott has authored numerous white papers on dam management, he's a FEMA trainer for dam safety, and is the current owner of Watershed Services of Ohio which specializes in dam projects across the eastern US. Suffice it to say, he knows his "dam" stuff.

Scott and Chris talk about the physics behind the failing spillways at Oroville, as well as the probability of a wider-scale failure from here as days of rain return to California.

Sadly, Scott explains how this crisis was easily avoidable. The points of failure in Oroville's infrastructure were identified many years ago, and the cost of making the needed repairs was quite small -- around $6 million. But for short-sighted reasons, the repairs were not funded; and now the bill to fix the resultant damage will likely be on the order of magnitude of over $200 million. Which does not factor in the environmental carnage being caused by flooding downstream ecosystems with high-sediment water or the costs involved with evacuating the 200,000 residents living nearby the dam.

Oh, and of course, these projected costs will skyrocket higher should a catastrophic failure occur; which can't be lightly dismissed at this point.

Scott explains to Chris how this crisis is indicative of the neglect rampant across the entire US national dam system. Oroville is one of the best-managed and maintained dams in the country. If it still suffered from too much deferred maintenance, imagine how vulnerable the country's thousands and thousands of smaller dams are. Trillions of dollars are needed to bring our national dams up to satisfactory status. How much else is needed for the country's roads, railsystems, waterworks, power grids, etc?

Both Chris and Scott agree that individuals need to shoulder more personal responsibility for their safety than the government advises, as -- let's face it -- the government rarely admits there's a problem until it's an emergency. Katrina, Fukushima, Oroville -- we need to critically parse the information being given to us when the government and media say 'it's all under control', as well as have emergency preparations already in place should swift action be necessary.

Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Scott Cahill (47m:13s).

Key excerpt:

Chris Martenson: Right, well especially after they just come out of a pretty punishing drought. Obviously a lot of water sensitivity around these issues now; so this is a – it’s really symbolic on a lot of levels. And so you started to mention what I want to get into here for the final part of this is let’s broaden this up Scott. What about – let’s talk about the state of dams across the US in general. I’m sure it’s a mixed bag, some are probably pretty great shape and some are not. But how many would you say are on the worrisome side of the tracks and how do we measure and talk about that? What’s the language here?

Scott Cahill: It’s an interesting problem. The finest dams in the United States I believe are dams which are under the control of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC, as is this dam. There are many dams which are in horrible, horrible shape, unbelievable shape across the United States. Many states have 4,000 dams. Many states have 2,000 and 3,000 dams. Of those dams I would imagine that 20% are in an absolutely untenable situation.

When we look at this dam, which is a highly regulated dam, a dam more highly regulated than almost any others. They had an emergency spillway filled with trees. They had a principle spillway that was in the process of failing and had been for years. So, if this can exist on one of the most highly regulated dams then one can just interpolate and imagine what the rest of the situation is like.

Dams and infrastructure in general in these United States have been ignored since they were constructed; many of them 100 years old. The mass of them more than 50 years old. And the design life when they were constructed, generally 50 years. We – it’s hard politically to go back and spend the money proactively to develop safety because nothing has happened. And so, with dam safety, time and time again we act after the horrible event. Something really horrible happens and someone reacts to that and says, “You know I will never let this happen again”. And indeed we move forward. And then the pressure is off and it’s not frightening anymore and we go back to a level of complacency that allows us to get where we stand today.

Dams are in terrible shape in the United States as are all of our infrastructure, bridges, 600,000 bridges with 27% of them not meeting their minimum requirements. A number of these high hazard dams are not even close. There’s a report card given out by the American Society of Civil Engineers and many states, dam inventories are getting D’s, D minuses, D plusses. It’s hard to believe. Certainly someone in the 1960’s would never believe that the United States would have these issues, but we’ve ignored them far too long, Chris.