Californians know about disaster. Still, as 188,000 evacuees began blearily to return to their homes below Oroville Dam on Tuesday, it was with the sense that this one was new.
The half-century-old dam is said to be stabilized and at far less risk of overflowing. The incoming rain is said to be less threatening than the atmospheric river that inundated the region last month. And kudos, by the way, to the unsung heroes of the public sector – the scientists and engineers who toiled tirelessly to measure and model the gathering crisis, the hard hats who sandbagged and backfilled at the dam site, the first responders including Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea, who made a gutsy call to protect lives.
Still, as workers repair the broken spillways that set this terrifying chain of events in motion, taxpayers and lawmakers will have to get to the bottom of long-postponed and suddenly pressing questions. Why was the main spillway so vulnerable that the water gushing down its chute could blow off its lining? Why was the backup, emergency spillway left unarmored?
As Stuart Leavenworth, Sean Cockerham and Ryan Sabalow of The Bee and the McClatchy Washington Bureau have reported, some experts feared that if that dam runoff ever had to be sent onto that earthen auxiliary spillway, the resulting erosion could compromise the whole structure.
In 2005, environmental groups urged the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to force the state to reinforce the backup spillway. That didn’t happen, perhaps because water districts didn’t want to pay, or because federal guidelines discouraged such an expense for such a seemingly remote danger.
Of course, the seminal climate change documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” wasn’t released until the next year; we knew far less about the extreme storms that come with global warming. Knowing what we know now, what will we do, not just at Oroville, but throughout the state? Water infrastructure repairs could top $100 billion. Who’ll pay?
On Tuesday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency approved Gov. Jerry Brown’s request for aid. Will President Donald Trump fulfill his campaign promise to provide federal money to improve infrastructure? That question, too, is key. Oroville isn’t just the nation’s tallest dam, with the state’s second-largest reservoir. It waters Los Angeles, the Central Valley and Silicon Valley. No disaster here is an island. This one was also averted for the national and world economies.