After Oroville Dam debacle, we deserve straight talk and safety

Workers and a firefighter watch water pouring down Oroville Dam’s damaged main spillway on Feb. 20.
Workers and a firefighter watch water pouring down Oroville Dam’s damaged main spillway on Feb. 20. hamezcua@sacbee.com

Without a doubt, California’s first Gov. Brown had big ambitions. He wanted to re-plumb the state, and to do that, he needed to build a massive dam on the mighty Feather River.

Toward that end, Pat Brown did what politicians do: He spun a story, replete with big promises and some exaggerations.

In a historical account of the dam’s construction, The Sacramento Bee’s Ryan Sabalow, Dale Kasler and Christopher Cadelago wrote that the father of our current Gov. Jerry Brown “brought an almost evangelical zeal to erecting the structure that would hold back the Feather River to deliver water to the parched southern half of the state.”

Fifty years later, many of the promises made by Brown and his successor, Ronald Reagan, haven’t come to pass. There is no monorail, no major resort, no 1,000-seat amphitheater and there aren’t 5 million visitors a year.

But for 50-plus years, through dry years and wet ones, Lake Oroville has delivered on its grandest and most fundamental promise: water. In part because of the water it has delivered, California has flourished.

In 2017, Californians probably wouldn’t support building such a massive and expensive structure. Even if it were constructed, it would be very different. Certainly, engineering has improved, as have construction materials. There would be many more concessions to fisheries and the environment.

But because of Lake Oroville, 50,000 acres of San Joaquin Valley farmland receive water. It is a primary source of water for 25 million Californians – in the East Bay and Silicon Valley, and also Los Angeles and San Diego.

Turbines at the dam generate enough carbon-free hydroelectricity to power a city the size of San Francisco. For Sacramento and other cities downstream, it has provided protection against floods.

On Christmas Eve 1955, a decade before Oroville Dam existed, a Feather River flood killed at least 37 people. In a 1964 flood, the partially completed dam averted deaths and damage in Oroville, Marysville and Yuba City. “The great lesson of this flood comes from the fact that where dams and levees exist there was little or no flooding but where the rivers are uncontrolled there was great damage and destruction,” a report said.

But in the deluge in February, the dam became cause for deep worry for some people who live below it. Their concerns are wholly reasonable. As the spillway crumbled and an emergency spillway seemed to fail, Butte County Sheriff Kory L. Honea wisely ordered the evacuation of 188,000 residents.

Now, acting state Water Resources Director Bill Croyle is apologizing to residents for the disruption caused by the damaged spillway. The Department of Water Resources, which manages the State Water Project, is seeking what it calls a reset.

They should do nothing else. The state and federal governments and the contractors who depend on the State Water Project fed by Lake Oroville are about to reconstruct the crippled spillway. Hundreds of construction workers will be arriving, so many that the department is scrambling to find housing.

Croyle and others in the department promise to be as transparent as possible as they rebuild as much of the spillway as they can this summer before next winter’s rains. What isn’t completed before November will be done in 2018, they say.

In 2017, no one should realistically expect a Butte County version of Disneyland at Oroville. There will be no monorail or amphitheater. But residents of Oroville and those of us downstream do expect straight talk, and a dam and spillway that will be safer and more secure.

The Legislature has an important role, too. With the immediate crisis averted and spring temperatures rising, lawmakers are contemplating parks and water bonds, which would go before voters in 2018.

One of the measures, a $3.5 billion bond embodied in Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León’s Senate Bill 5, would provide $800 million for parks in poor communities, $750 million to clean polluted water and $510 million for wildlife habitat threatened by climate change. All of that is no doubt needed.

The proposal includes $500 million for flood control. Compared to the need, that’s a modest amount, though more than is offered in a $3 billion Assembly version. The Department of Water Resources has estimated as much as $52 billion is needed to shore up levees and dams in our heavily re-engineered state.

The state cannot fill that need with one bond, or even many. But the damage to Oroville Dam makes clear there must be forward-thinking discussion of this state’s water infrastructure, and it must happen now. It’s not surprising that past governors promised not just dams, but monorails and amphitheaters. Infrastructure is such a dreary word.

But California finds itself in arrears in part because legislators prefer to spend money for parks in their districts, rather than shoring up existing structures, like dams. The near-disaster at Oroville Dam shows how short-sighted that can be.