After the near-catastrophe at Oroville Dam, it’s time to strengthen the regulatory process to ensure safer operation of dams.
Stronger federal regulations are vital for state- and locally owned dams. Oroville is operated by the California Department of Water Resources, an agency in a wealthy and progressive state. If DWR’s capacity and expertise didn’t prevent the spillway failure, a state with fewer resources might have been less lucky.
DWR built Oroville in 1968 and applied for its new operating license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2007. The FERC hydropower relicensing process is an opportunity to update old infrastructure, using best practices to balance power-generating capabilities with safety, habitat and recreation. My research focuses on improving decision-making in FERC relicensing. I believe we need to fortify this process to prevent future crises.
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FERC’s first problem is not accounting for climate change in license renewals. Most of America’s dams were built between 1930 and 1970, using the best available estimates of river flows. Since then, our climate has transformed and extreme weather events – floods, hurricanes and droughts – are expected to be more frequent and severe. Modern dams need to be ready for weather scenarios that were unthinkable 50 to 100 years ago.
Unfortunately, FERC’s decisions only use historical data, so new licenses, which last 30 to 50 years, will not reflect how much water may be available on either the low or high end. If these extremes are not anticipated, surprises like the extreme flows at Oroville are more likely to cause problems. By not building licenses around climate forecasts, operators will be less efficient at saving water during drought or releasing water before it becomes a flood risk.
Additionally, by considering climate change, we may find some dams where infrastructure upgrades are needed to ensure safety. If Oroville had a lower-level spillway, officials could have drained water before nearing a crisis situation and would have had additional options during the crisis itself.
The second challenge is a lack of collaboration during relicensing. When dam owners work closely with federal and state agencies, nonprofit organizations and Indian tribes, they develop licenses that better serve the public interest. By including more opinions in the process, collaboratively developed licenses balance business interests with public concerns, from environmental protection to hunting and fishing.
During Oroville’s relicensing, a consortium of nonprofit organizations commented that the dam’s auxiliary spillway could erode unless it was paved with concrete. However, this concern didn’t make it into FERC’s recommended license. If what I’ve seen at other dams across the country holds true, this concern would be in the operating requirements if it were negotiated in a collaborative, face-to-face forum.
The final challenge is FERC’s slow approval process, which delays new licenses’ environmental, recreational and safety improvements. The application to continue operating Oroville was submitted in 2007, and 10 years later the project is operating on one-year extensions of the old license and waiting for the new license to be issued. FERC isn’t solely responsible for delay, as licensees also need approval from agencies that protect water quality and endangered species.
FERC is reducing approval time with a new licensing approach implemented after Oroville. According to my research, this approach, called the Integrated Licensing Process, shortens agency review time. However, lags still occur when agencies are understaffed or individual approval processes aren’t coordinated.
Without fortifying the regulatory process, our country’s numerous dams are at risk of failure. We passed one close call, but others are coming.
Nicola Ulibarri is an assistant professor of environmental planning and policy at the University of California, Irvine. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.