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Commentary: Oroville shows importance of flood-control projects

Issue Date: February 22, 2017
By Jamie Johansson
Jamie Johansson
In this photo from Feb. 15, Oroville Dam releases water from its spillway. The dam’s emergency spillway, shown at left, showed signs of erosion a few days earlier. Authorities ordered evacuation of downstream areas as a precaution, but the emergency spillway held and the dam itself was never in jeopardy.
Photo/Dale Kolke, Calif. Dept. of Water Resources

Along with the torrents of water released from Oroville Dam this month has come a torrent of ink and words, as writers from every perspective have opined about the dam, the safety of its emergency spillway and what it means for California's water system in general.

I have something of a unique perspective on this. Not only is my farm 4 miles from Oroville Dam—I was actually at its Visitors Center with my Cub Scout group when word came that authorities were ordering evacuation of areas downstream, concerned about failure of the auxiliary spillway within an hour—a surreal moment that now is second in my life only to experiencing the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco.

As it turned out, my home and farm were outside the evacuation area, but the order caused worry and dislocation for many of my friends and colleagues.

So far, though, the impact has been mainly one of significant but temporary disruption for the estimated 200,000 people evacuated—not the impending disaster some people feared. For that, we can all be grateful.

Nonetheless, several headlines have referred to the Oroville situation as a disaster. It wasn't a disaster. Instead, it was a disaster averted. The emergency spillway held. The dam itself was never in jeopardy. Its operators were able to lower the lake level enough to allow people to return to their homes, farms and businesses after a couple of nervous days—though no one will take their eyes off the dam until we are safely through the spring snow melt and repairs are complete.

In a news conference addressing the events at Oroville Dam, Gov. Brown referred to the Loma Prieta earthquake as an example of how California should move forward: "We live in a world of risk. Stuff happens, and we respond." We should hope California responds to our water infrastructure needs in the same way it did after Loma Prieta to protect people from earthquakes.

The Oroville incident—and the huge volume of precipitation that preceded it—serve as a massive wake-up call. As others have noted, California and the nation have scrimped on infrastructure. We haven't invested enough in the roads, bridges, sewers, canals and dams on which so much of our safety and livelihoods depend.

And where we have invested, how much of our state's financial resources have been squandered on questionable mitigation projects at the expense of public safety?

Dams have been out of favor with some people for quite a while, of course. Environmentalists say they hate them for blocking rivers and affecting fish and wildlife. A couple of environmental groups have been all too eager to note that they had raised concerns about the Oroville Dam emergency spillway in 2005, as they looked for every reason they could to discourage a federal agency from renewing the dam's license.

The environmental groups' petition noted that in 1966, Congress authorized construction of an additional, 750,000 acre-foot flood-protection reservoir at Marysville. Had that dam been built, the environmental groups' now-famous concerns about the Oroville spillway would have been alleviated. But of course Marysville Dam was never built—and the protection of salmon and steelhead in the Yuba River as endangered species makes the prospect remote.

Fortunately, Oroville Dam was there. Otherwise, all that water falling on the Feather River watershed would have gushed through the Sacramento Valley, flooding cities and turning the valley into the inland sea that it once became, periodically, in the wettest of winters.

I haven't heard the environmental groups describe how they would prevent flooding, in the absence of dams. Nor have I heard them discuss how their decades of anti-infrastructure obstructionism contributed to the lack of investment in flood control that everyone now regrets.

When California voters approved the Proposition 1 water bond in November 2014, they did so in the midst of a grinding drought, with the goal of adding to the state's water supply. As reservoir operators release huge volumes of water this winter, there's often no place for it to go but out to sea. If next winter turns dry, and California returns to a drought cycle, we will dearly miss all of the flood-flow water we had to dump in 2017.

That's why it's so important to keep pushing forward with aboveground storage projects such as Sites and Temperance Flat reservoirs. Creating additional underground storage projects can also help take better advantage of the wet times, when they come.

A winter such as 2017—where California seemingly moved in the blink of an eye from lingering drought to widespread flood worries—shows us how our water system needs to add flexibility both in operation of existing projects and in creation of new ones. It has shown us where we need to concentrate efforts at flood control, just as previous drought winters showed how crucial it is to improve our ability to capture water for future supplies.

Dams and reservoirs that have increasingly been repurposed to benefit protected fish need to return to their true multi-use roots, assuring flood control and water supply in ways that still allow fish populations to recover.

Farm Bureau will continue to work with elected officials, government agencies and others involved in water and flood-control discussions, to make sure these lessons are applied.

(Jamie Johansson is first vice president of the California Farm Bureau Federation and served on the Oroville City Council for five years.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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