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Who Should Pay To Fix The Oroville Dam?

Below the Oroville Dam on February 18, 2017 | Photo: Florence Low / California Department of Water Resources
Below the Oroville Dam on February 18, 2017 | Photo: Florence Low / California Department of Water Resources

Commentary: After a nail-biting week of rain, it looks like the Oroville Dam spillway crisis is under control, for now. Downstream communities, including the nearly 200,000 people whose lives were disrupted by a two-day evacuation, will remain on alert as the large snowpack in the Northern Sierra (more than 150 percent of normal) begins to melt this spring.

Dam operators will be doing nervous mathematics to decide how much water should be let out to keep downstream communities like the Delta safe, versus how much they can keep to fill the needs of the 23 million Californians who depend on the water from the Oroville Dam, the main water supply for the State Water Project. The same type of mathematics will be applied to dam operations throughout the state, and the threat of flood will continue for months. 

Early estimates for repairs to Oroville’s main and emergency spillways are falling between $100–$200 million. That price will likely go up as the full extent of the damage is evaluated by engineers and geologists working for the California Department of Water Resources. One thing nobody disputes is that this essential component of California’s water infrastructure must be repaired as quickly as possible.

This urgency raises an important question: Who should pay?

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The answer is the State Water Contractors, the beneficiaries of the project. That’s according to the Department of Water Resources. Water supply benefits are paid for by water contractors, and spillways are part of water supply protection.

The State Water Contractors include the Santa Clara Valley Water District, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, and big agricultural water districts like the Kern County Water Agency. Agricultural users like Stewart Resnick, owner of Paramount Farms and the Wonderful Company, consume 80 percent of the developed water in California, so they need to get out their checkbooks as well.

George Skelton, the Los Angeles Times' capitol columnist in Sacramento, follows water policy very closely. He was quite blunt about who he thinks should pay for these repairs: the people who use the water. “Charge the water users.” Skelton writes. “A spillway wouldn’t be needed at all without a dam to store water for farms, industry and homes.”

Workers survey erosion of the emergency spillway at Oroville Dam. | Florence Low / California Department of Water Resources
Workers survey erosion of the emergency spillway at Oroville Dam. | Florence Low / California Department of Water Resources

As climate change brings more extreme weather to California, we will need to invest in repairing our existing dams; many are more than 50 years old and approaching, or already past, the end of their useful lives. Some dams may need to be rebuilt or torn down entirely to be made safe. Spillways may need to be redesigned, while floodplains and technological connections between our existing dams and groundwater recharge need to be created.

What we don’t need are the proposed $60 billion Delta Tunnels, which will sit empty more than half the time, yet will be designed with sedimentation ponds and fine fish screens not strong enough to handle flooding due to the volume of debris that moves downstream and into the Delta during flood events. Entire logs are floating down the Sacramento River right now.

“All of our climate change calculations suggest wetter wets and drier dries,” says Jeffrey Mount, a water expert at the Public Policy Institute of California told the Los Angeles Times. Mount expects less snow and more warm rain, and thus more rapid runoff into swollen rivers.

Is our 20th Century infrastructure ready to take on the “new normal” of a 21st Century climate? At least some of it seems to be.

The state and local farmers contribute to maintenance of levees through the San Francisco Bay-Delta, work ably performed by local reclamation district officials, engineers, and personnel. So far this winter, these combined state and local flood control investments in levee maintenance and emergency response have performed well despite the upstream threats of flooding.

While much of our wet season remains and flood emergencies due to so much upstream runoff are a possibility, 1,100 miles of Delta levees have continued protecting farms, homes, bridges, power lines, schools, and other community facilities. Most reported levee failures and flooding so far this winter have occurred upstream of the Delta.

In this new (very wet/very dry) climate, it could be that building new dams is not the best use of our water infrastructure spending at all. They have been an absolute disaster for California’s native salmon population who remain largely cut off from their ancestral spawning streams. Groundwater recharge, conservation, stormwater capture, and water recycling are proving to be much cheaper ways to ensure local water resiliency in a changing climate.

But for now, let’s focus on repairing the infrastructure we already have.

Safety must take priority over pie-in-the-sky boondoggles like the $60 billion Delta Tunnels that would largely deliver water to Big Ag in the southern San Joaquin Valley growing almonds for export to Asia.

The priority right now must be to make sure the dams and canals we already have can still protect the public, and will continue to do so in our changing climate.

Safety First.

Banner: An atmospheric river converging on California, February 20, 2017. Photo: NASA/Suomi NPP, edited by Stuart Rankin

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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