Oroville Dam makes clear: Nature’s in control

Watch: Drone flies over auxiliary spillway at Lake Oroville

The Department of Water Resources released a video shot by a drone over the Oroville Dam. Water is seen running over the emergency spillway as well as the main spillway.
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The Department of Water Resources released a video shot by a drone over the Oroville Dam. Water is seen running over the emergency spillway as well as the main spillway.

For all our sophistication, for all the widgets created in Silicon Valley and all the doctorates bestowed by our universities, we who live here in California know better than most that nature can be humbling.

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea certainly knows that.

On Sunday, state and local officials monitoring Oroville Dam, built in 1968, could see that the emergency spillway was eroding and in danger of collapsing. Failure would cause a surge that could inundate Marysville and Yuba City.

Honea sounded the alarm, telling people downstream of Oroville Dam to evacuate.

“This (is) NOT A Drill. This (is) NOT A Drill. This (is) NOT A Drill,” Honea said.

We may think we tame nature. We kid ourselves. An earthquake can strike at any time, liquefying seemingly solid ground, lifting entire buildings off their foundations, and fracturing bridges. Parts of Malibu can slide into the Pacific in one rainy season. A few months later, fire can destroy entire communities in the Sierra foothills.

The current situation cannot be attributed to climate change alone. Scientists say no single event can be laid at the feet of global warming. But they also say climate change leads to extreme weather patterns. And California certainly is experiencing extremes. California is ending five years of drought, and now is experiencing one of the wettest rainy seasons on record.

We live in a valley that 100 years ago flooded regularly. We have built huge dams and reclaimed and re-engineered the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta into an unnatural system of channels. The good people of Sacramento have taxed themselves, spending $2 billion on levees for flood control. Californians have been doing their part.

State and federal authorities have pitched in, too. The federal government will need to step in by helping California with Oroville Dam. In a time of emergency, we must act as one. No politician, not in Sacramento and not in Washington, should attempt to play politics with the necessary repair.

For now, there is a break in the rain, thankfully. But that is expected to change later in the week. With more precipitation, Lake Oroville will become more stressed.

In those exceedingly rare deluges when Lake Oroville fills and water cannot be released quickly enough through the concrete spillway, the emergency spillway is supposed to allow water to escape and protect the Oroville Dam itself.

It should not, in other words, be in danger of eroding. Whether the emergency spillway fails or manages to hold, serious questions must be posed. The spillway is supposed to be the fail-safe mechanism. The possibility of failure is not acceptable.

The worst almost certainly is not over. The implications will reverberate for months and years as authorities figure out how best to repair the dam. The cost will be huge. We should understand that our climate is changing. And the new normal is upon us.

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