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What lessons should we learn from Oroville Dam drama?

The birth of Oroville Dam: Watch 1960s construction of tallest dam in the U.S.

A 1990s documentary uses archival footage to detail the construction of the Oroville Dam, an earthfill embankment dam on the Feather River east of the city of Oroville, California, in the United States that was built during the period 1961 to 1968
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A 1990s documentary uses archival footage to detail the construction of the Oroville Dam, an earthfill embankment dam on the Feather River east of the city of Oroville, California, in the United States that was built during the period 1961 to 1968

California appears to have dodged disaster at the Oroville Dam, at least so far.

But the damaged spillway at the nation’s highest dam and the mass evacuation did unleash a lot of consternation about the state of our dams.

And for good reason – the latest look at dam safety shows that 54 percent of the 1,250 dams regulated by the state are classified as “high-hazard” potential. That means if they failed or were operated wrongly, it would probably lead to loss of life.

That “high hazard” percentage is far higher than nearby states, and higher than the national average of 15 percent, according to data kept by the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.

In addition, 23 percent of California’s dams are in the “significant hazard” category, which means failure would cause an economic loss. And more than half of the dams were built before 1960, which increases the need for regular inspections. Many towns and cities were built or expanded downstream since.

Overall, the state is responsible for 79 percent of the 1,585 dams in California. The state’s dam safety program, with about 60 employees and an annual budget of $13.2 million, is praised nationally. But a report Sunday in the San Francisco Chronicle is the latest to raise some questions. It found that as of October 2015, a dozen high or significant hazard dams had gone more than two years without inspections.

This video shows the progress crews have made to reinforce the emergency spillway.

The state Division of Safety of Dams was created after the 1928 collapse of the St. Francis Dam in Southern California killed more than 450 people, destroyed 900 houses and swept away 24,000 acres of farmland. The state strengthened its regulations after a 1963 dam break killed five and washed away dozens of homes in the Baldwin Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles.

Let’s hope it doesn’t take another disaster to do something meaningful on dam safety.

On Friday, Gov. Jerry Brown announced a four-point plan that includes spending $437 million on flood control and emergency response, requiring emergency plans for all dams, enhancing dam inspections and seeking federal action and funding.

Legislative leaders also say California must buttress its water and flood control systems, but it can’t be just talk again. Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León is pushing to add $500 million for flood protection grants to a proposed $3 billion bond measure in 2018 and has called for oversight hearings on flood protection next week.

The renewed focus on dam safety is a good thing. So is the attention brought by the Oroville Dam drama to the broader problem of how we have let our infrastructure fall apart with spotty maintenance and lack of money for repairs.

Just like nervous homeowners who live near dams, it turns out that the state needs its own kind of flood insurance.

By the numbers

A look at the status of state-regulated dams in selected states:

State

High-hazard

% of total dams

California

678

54.2

Arizona

108

41.8

Colorado

407

23.2

Nevada

153

22.3

Oregon

77

7.9

Washington

186

17.8

Source: Association of State Dam Safety Officials

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