Don’t Let Storm Lessons Drain Away

Recent rainstorms caused flooding and power outages across northern California but also helped replenish the state’s water supply. On the other hand, as many Californians learned, storms can also reveal government incompetence

As we noted in 2017, a massive spillway failure at the Oroville Dam prompted an evacuation order that sent 200,000 people running for shelter. According to experts, if the spillway collapsed, it would not be much different than total dam failure. 

“The emergency spillway remained basically a dirt, soil rock facility,” Rep. John Garamendi told reporters, “and it worked fine until it had to be used, in which case it didn’t work so well.” Gov. Jerry Brown told reporters he was unaware of warnings about the spillway and, “I’m glad we found out about it.”

As we noted in 2018, one of the government’s first moves was to dam up the flow of information on safety issues. The governor and state water bureaucrats blocked access to the dam’s design specifications, federal inspection reports, technical documents, and other crucial information. 

Much of that emerged in Independent Forensic Team Report: Oroville Dam Spillway Incident, a 584-page report that chalks up the disaster to “a complex interaction of relatively common physical, human, organizational, and industry factors, starting with the design of the project and continuing until the incident.” 

Readers learn that the principal designer for both Oroville spillways “was hired directly from a university post-graduate program, with prior engineering employment experience limited to one or two summers.” And the designer had “no prior professional experience designing spillways” and “no instruction on spillway design.” 

The forensic team “finds it striking that such an inexperienced engineer was given the responsibility of designing the spillways of what is still the tallest dam in the US.” What could possibly go wrong? Some 200,000 evacuees have the answer. Recent storms did not cause a repeat, but they did bring another problem to the surface

During power blackouts, Californians with gas stoves could brew tea, warm up food, and bring light and heat to the kitchen. That was not possible with electric stoves, and electric cars would not be charging during blackouts. Despite these emergency advantages, government regulators are talking about banning gas stoves for reasons not at all convincing. 

Politicians and regulatory zealots seem unaware that there are no perfect solutions, only tradeoffs. In energy and water policy, as in politics, it’s all about memory against forgetting. For further reading, see Lawrence McQuillan and Hayeon Carol Park for the advantages of transferring Oroville and other state dams to private ownership.

K. Lloyd Billingsley is a Policy Fellow at the Independent Institute and a columnist at American Greatness.
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