Water & Drought

Bigger than a breadbox? How Oroville Dam stacks up

Water flows down the damaged spillway Saturday, Feb. 11, 2017, at Oroville Dam
Water flows down the damaged spillway Saturday, Feb. 11, 2017, at Oroville Dam Special to The Bee

Long before a spillway emergency made it a national headline, Oroville Dam already had a claim to fame. At 770 feet, it’s the highest dam in the United States.

Wait. Surely it’s only the highest earthfill dam in the U.S. After all, what about Hoover Dam? Turns out, the famous landmark falls just short of Oroville Dam at 726 feet in height. From there, other U.S. dams just get shorter, with Shasta Dam coming in at 602 feet.

But Oroville Dam doesn’t fare so well against the world’s tallest dams. The Jinping-I Dam in China towers over it at 1,001 feet high, followed by other taller dams in China, Tajikistan, Switzerland, Georgia, Italy, Mexico, India, Turkey, Ethiopia, Colombia, Canada and Russia. Oroville Dam does, however, top the famed 364-foot Aswan High Dam in Egypt, which gains its name from its relative height advantage over the older Aswan Low Dam.

How does Oroville Dam stack up closer to home? Its 770 feet makes the dam taller than any building in Sacramento – the tallest, Wells Fargo Center, tops out at a paltry 423 feet by comparison. How about the San Francisco skyline? The dam’s just short of the Transamerica Pyramid, at 853 feet, but taller than the 645-foot Millennium Tower and 641-foot One Rincon Hill South Tower. If you put Oroville Dam next to the Golden Gate Bridge, and managed to get it not to sink, it would just top the bridge’s 745-foot-tall towers.

And, for the record, you could stuff around two-and-a-half Oroville Dams into One World Trade Center, at 1,776 feet and nearly two more into the 1,368-foot Empire State Building.

On the other hand, Oroville Dam’s more than five times as high as the 150-foot Superman: Ultimate Flight roller coaster at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo. And it dwarfs the tallest tree in the world, the 379-foot Hyperion sequoia in California’s Redwood National Park.

According to California Department of Water Services statistics, Oroville Dam boasts some other big numbers, too. The earthfill dam, completed in 1967, spans 6,920 feet in length and 50 feet in width at the crest. It contains 80 million cubic yards of dirt and rock.

Behind the dam, Lake Oroville has a maximum operating storage capacity of 3.5 million acre-feet of water. (Each acre-foot covers an acre of land one foot deep, about as much water as a typical suburban family uses in one year.) At its fullest, the lake covers 15,810 acres and has a 167-mile shoreline – the driving distance from Sacramento to Yosemite National Park.