What the Oroville Dam debacle should teach engineers and experts, and the rest of us

The six engineers and geologists who studied the debacle at Oroville Dam are at the pinnacle of their professions. They were responsible for reviewing the work of others who also were at the top of their fields.

Having spent decades analyzing obscure aspects of hydrology and geology, Independent Forensic Team members produced an impressive 584-page report focused on esoteric aspects of the science of dams, written for others versed in such science.

And yet for all their expertise, the team urged that the engineers who operate the nation’s tallest dam and have dared to tame a mighty Feather River display that rarest of human qualities: humility. The finding is especially relevant as California prepares to spend $2.7 billion in voter-approved bonds on new water storage projects, including new reservoirs and dams.

“Individuals and organizations should humbly recognize the limitations of their knowledge and skills ...,” the team wrote.

And: “Rather than associating itself with the accomplishments of its engineers and geologists from two generations ago, DWR [the California Department of Water Resources] should instead shift its organizational culture in a direction of more humility regarding its expertise and an orientation towards being more of a ‘learning organization.’ 

As a sub-theme, the report urges that people responsible for dam safety need to be inquisitive and skeptical, communicate effectively and be assertive. In other words, they must be willing to question authority, a concept that should apply in all professions.

In a state Assembly hearing on Wednesday, politicians who represent the Oroville area seized on the report to bash the Department of Water Resources. There is blame to be spread, and Gov. Jerry Brown was quick to shake up the department’s leadership. But the report is a call to improve future operations, not one that shoots the wounded.

Toward that end, Brown looked within his administration and made a wise choice by selecting Karla Nemeth to head the Department of Water Resources. Nemeth is steeped in water policy and politics. But she’s not one to swagger, and she definitely is not a water buffalo, a moniker worn proudly by old hands, many of them graying men, who have traditionally made decisions about California’s water system.

Nemeth will face weighty policy issues as she helps reshape the culture in the department. Humility should become part of that culture, and it needs to extend to California’s Division of Dam Safety, which is responsible for inspecting Oroville and hundreds of other dams in California.

It definitely should include the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which licenses Oroville, and concluded in 2014 that a failure of the flood-control spillway was so unlikely that there was no need to plan for such an emergency, as The Bee’s Ryan Sabalow has reported.

The fearsome power of water became evident to those of us in the Sacramento River Valley last February when the concrete spillway at Oroville Dam crumbled. If anyone doubted that Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea made the right call when he ordered the evacuation of 188,000 people below Oroville, the Independent Forensic Team implicitly illustrated how close we all came to true disaster. Honea showed humility by ordering people to leave.

Heavy rain displayed its fury the other day when flooding led to mudslides that claimed at least 17 lives in the Santa Barbara County town of Montecito, this after the community had been evacuated a month earlier because of the state’s largest wildfire ever. Climate change is upon us, and emergency responders, like engineers and the public, must rethink how to react to impending disaster. Try as we might, humans never will fully corral nature.

“No matter how much you know and think you know, you need to be humble that there are things that you don’t know,” John W. France, who led the forensic team, and works for the firm, AECOM, in Denver, told an editorial board member.

France has worked in the field for 41 years, and has reviewed and helped build more dams than he could count. And yet he offers this wisdom: “You are human and fallible, and keep that in mind for everything you do.”

Lessons drawn from the crisis at Oroville Dam ought to be taught beyond California, and become a part of the curriculum in universities that produce future engineers. If the concrete spillway crumbled at Oroville, so vital to California’s water system, what other dam can be truly certified as safe?

The concept that hubris often is our collective downfall is as old as civilization. It’s a lesson for all of us, not just the engineers and dam safety inspectors in the Department of Water Resources.