On Feb. 12, more than 180,000 people on the east side of California’s Sacramento Valley were ordered to evacuate, due to concerns that the Oroville Dam’s emergency spillway could fail. With no advance warning, families fled for their lives. Fortunately, in the weeks following the evacuation, an incredible state and local effort has coalesced to stabilize the dam.
In the meantime, it has been interesting to observe how various interests are pointing to the Oroville crisis as a means of advancing political agendas.
One day after water began spilling for the first time over the Oroville emergency spillway, The San Jose Mercury News provided a platform for some of the most vocal critics of dams, who suggested that if only the state would have heeded their public comments in the 2005 Federal Energy Regulatory Commission relicensing process for Oroville Dam, this disaster would have been averted. The Mercury News story quickly got some legs, and in the days that followed, antidam advocates and their allies in some of the nation’s largest urban newspapers quickly jumped on the bandwagon, heeding Winston Churchill’s famous advice: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”
“Twelve years ago, Friends of the River and other environmental groups warned state and federal agencies that the unarmored spillway at Oroville, our nation’s tallest dam, was dangerous. We were ignored,” wrote Eric Wesselman and Ron Stork of Friends of the River in a San Francisco Chronicle guest column. “This time, we trust our words will not fall on deaf ears.”
“To avoid catastrophe, don’t build more dams,” the headline of their column warned. Then, taking advantage of a great publicity opportunity, the authors urged Chronicle readers to “stay informed by supporting groups such as Friends of the River.”
Hoping for help
There are reasons why the antidam rhetoric is being elevated at this time. Western water interests are hopeful that President Donald Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure initiative will also include provisions for new water infrastructure. This hope was fortified on Feb. 14, when White House spokesman Sean Spicer pointed to the Oroville crisis as “a textbook example of why we need to pursue a major infrastructure package in Congress.” Already in this new Congress, four new bills have been introduced that are intended to streamline permitting of new water infrastructure projects.
Perhaps the antidam interests are beginning to sense the shifting inertia that has essentially prevented new surface water storage projects from being developed in California, and elsewhere in the West, over the past 30 years. This issue was eloquently captured by Victor Davis Hanson in an op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times, where he wrote, “The crisis at Oroville is a third act in the state’s history: One majestic generation built great dams, a second enjoyed them while they aged, and a third fiddles as they now erode.”
With Republicans controlling Congress and the White House for the first time in years, momentum for water projects is growing. What better time for dam critics to put a crisis like Oroville to use?
Keppen is CEO of the Family Farm Alliance.