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Damning Questions About Oroville

February 11, 2017

By Paul Homewood


h/t Joe Public




WUWT carries the story of the Oroville Dam emergency spillway in California. In short, the spillway has been damaged at the same time as the dam itself is close to overflowing, following recent heavy rain.


There will doubtless be many questions asked about the design, integrity and maintenance of the spillway. But one question that should be asked is why the dam was allowed to come close to full in the first place.


As can be seen, nearly all of the major reservoirs across California are at or above average, and many are close to full up.





Oroville itself has been rising rapidly since early December, so water managers have had plenty of warning about what was happening.




Of course, reservoir management is a difficult job at the best of times, particularly when dams serve double purposes – water storage and flood control.

But one wonders whether too much attention has been paid to the slew of warnings in recent years from climate scientists and others about permanent drought in California.

For instance:

California Braces for Unending Drought,” The New York Times reported in May 2016, citing Gov. Jerry Brown’s decision to indefinitely keep in place statewide water conservation measures. Brown also order state agencies to “prepare for a future made drier by climate change,” the Times reported.

Thanks El Niño, But California’s Drought Is Probably Forever,” Wired reported that same month reporting on Brown’s indefinite water restrictions.

“Now we know that drought is becoming a regular occurrence and water conservation must be a part of our everyday life,” Brown said in his 2016 statement extending water restrictions.

The reality is that California’s climate has swung from one extreme to the other, drought to flood, with monotonous regularity for the last century, and no doubt much longer.




The one thing you should expect is the unexpected.


There are of course parallels with the Wivenhoe dam in Australia back in 2011. Then the dam was kept at full capacity, despite warnings of heavy rain to come. As a result, subsequent flooding was much worse than it need have been.

It is apparent that those in charge in Queensland placed far too much emphasis on prior warnings of permanent drought.


Perhaps the key lesson from all of this is that what we really need is much better short term weather forecasting, weeks and months ahead. This is what Met Offices should be concentrating resources on, and not trying to guess what might happen in a century time.

  1. Bloke down the pub permalink
    February 11, 2017 6:40 pm

    If the damage only occurred once the water started flowing over the spillway then it might be a bit harsh to criticize them for wanting to store the maximum amount of water. That’s making a couple of presumptions, firstly: that the spillway wasn’t already in such a state that the resulting damage should’ve been an obvious result; secondly that the hydrography of the area doesn’t mean that flooding of property downstream becomes more likely if the spillway is used rather than a steady draw-off. The amount of water entering the reservoir recently means that any decision that could’ve avoided use of the spillway would’ve had to be taken some time back. Even without the ‘Perma-drought’ hype, California usually swings from too much, to too little water, and I think the authorities could expect a lot of criticism in a couple of years if the reservoir ran dry after allowing too much water to escape this year.

  2. AlecM permalink
    February 11, 2017 6:44 pm

    Lefty politicians are inherently stupid and recruit bureaucrats with the same characteristic.

    Perhaps the Californian variety should be told to pay for the repairs of the damage considering they caused it.

  3. Harry Passfield permalink
    February 11, 2017 6:56 pm

    From my reading of WUWT it seems that a crack in the spillway was discovered a couple of years ago a bit higher up from the hole. I imagine that water got in through the crack over the years and scoured out the subsurface making the spillway into a ‘bridge’. Then it’s just a matter of time….

    • John Ellyssen permalink
      February 12, 2017 1:53 am

      Correct, a problem was known but never moved on because the drought was here and there “was time”. Even now, the state government is announcing there is no safety problem or anything. Never admit when they were wrong.

      • Nigel S permalink
        February 12, 2017 9:34 am

        The overgrown emergency spillway (being cleared in a hurry) confirms that, perhaps the most shocking aspect of the whole saga. Annual viewing of original Dam Busters film compulsory for all staff from now on!

  4. February 11, 2017 7:05 pm

    Reminds me of the levee problems in New Orleans which caused the horrific damage after Hurricane Katrina. Levee “masters” were political appointees by always corrupt politicians and were never properly managed. When Katrina came, the chickens came home to roost.

    Moral of the story: “don’t leave the left home alone.”

  5. A C Osborn permalink
    February 11, 2017 7:16 pm

    Paul, although I agree about better forecasts, they are no good if those in charge ignore them due to Climate Hysteria and AGW dogma.
    They new these storms were coming just as they did in Queensland.

  6. Roger Cole permalink
    February 11, 2017 7:35 pm

    I don’t see why a reservoir should not be expected to reach the level it was designed to reach. If I were to ask questions, they would be limited to why the spillway was not maintained in adequate condition to fulfill its function, quite possibly because of authorities with heads full of global warming propaganda and empty of Californian climate history believing that it would never again be needed.

    • John Palmer permalink
      February 11, 2017 7:48 pm

      Quite so!

      • Bloke down the pub permalink
        February 11, 2017 8:18 pm


  7. February 11, 2017 7:48 pm

    To be fair we have the benefit of hindsight unlike water managers.

    Oroville Dam emergency spillway in use for first time in history

    • Bloke down the pub permalink
      February 11, 2017 8:21 pm

      That’s the emergency spillway, not the one being discussed here. The emergency spillway is just an earth bank, so if that gets used there will be massive erosion and flooding downstream.

      • Nigel S permalink
        February 12, 2017 9:40 am

        The emergency spillway is to the left of the first picture which shows the main spillway in use and failing. The last picture shows an annotated aerial view that locates the various elements of the dam. The emergency spillway was overgrown and had to be cleared in a great hurry!

  8. February 11, 2017 8:11 pm

    It seems to be the same throughout the western world. It’s not that long ago that the people in charge of infrastructure knew what they were doing and how best to do their job. Now all decisions are made by lefty politicians and bureaucrats who have no idea how to organise a pi$$ up in a brewery. Hence all the problems with energy supply, water management, air quality (the diesel fiasco), the list goes on and on.

    Hence we have the nine worst words in the English language “I’m from the Government. I’m here to help you”. Not to mention “whenever government tries to make things better it almost invariably makes things worse and the state is, therefore, best cut out of the equation as often as humanly possible.”

  9. tom0mason permalink
    February 11, 2017 8:17 pm

    In California the largest reservoirs, or man-made lakes, in the U.S. state of California. All thirty-six reservoirs that contain over 200,000 acre feet (0.25 km3) of water at maximum capacity.

    Yes, one of man’s biggest contributions to global climate change is the of building dams and the altering of natural watercourses. America has been damming waterways for centuries, while the Russian were draining massive inland lakes like the Aral Sea.
    Along with deforestation, the altering of waterway throughout the world has, and will continue, to cause more manmade climate change than any amount of atmospheric CO2 vented by humans in their industrial endeavors.

  10. Athelstan permalink
    February 11, 2017 8:39 pm

    Dam overflows, spillways should be properly maintained no if nor buts.

    In times of excessive rainfall and it can get pretty wet in California, whatever is the primary purpose of the dam; if there is no procedure no, contingency for excess volume – where else is the water going to go irrespective of er even totally superfluous contingency – ‘managed streamflow’. Coz er you know, massive volumes of the wet stuff and gravity cannot be stopped – can it?

    Musing on, are they crying “drought” in California – still? And the map is interesting Paul of and about water levels in Ca Damns but knowing the majority of Southern Califorinia/LA water is from Boulder – I wonder what its current level is?

  11. Streetcred permalink
    February 12, 2017 1:22 am

    If you’re a dumbass bureaucrat who is a believer of the alarmists never ending drought meme … this is the result.
    We had the same level of incompetence caused by alarmism.

  12. John Ellyssen permalink
    February 12, 2017 1:59 am

    What is worse than failing to take action, is that the entire time (and some before) California has been in this drought, Governor moonbeam (as we know him) and the state have been tearing down other dams to allow better fish flow and basically to heck with water storage. Then he overreacts and slams on all kinds of water controls to which no one south of Santa Barbara paid any attention. Now that we have water again, he is not relaxing some of the water controls which he should. I do not mean all of them, we need to safeguard water for the future, but most of us have been ordered to live on less water with raised prices (tax) which moonbeam will not reduce in spite of having lots of available water.

  13. Teresa permalink
    February 12, 2017 4:39 am

    A great number of us that have lived in Oroville near-to or several decades can’t help but wonder how much less pressure would be put on water management and our communities up North here if S. Cal would find ways to provide their own population with water.
    Perhaps they can built a massive water treatment and dispersion plant? Great idea. Cost us residents A LOT less.

  14. 1saveenergy permalink
    February 12, 2017 10:37 am

    The emergency spillway over topping, from the air –

  15. dennisambler permalink
    February 12, 2017 11:27 am

    I don’t recall seeing reports of this on the UK MSM, nor the continuing blackouts in South Australia. Every news broadcast currently starts with the words, “Donald Trump”……..

  16. February 13, 2017 8:47 am

    Things are going downhill…

    BBC: More than 180,000 people in northern California have been told to evacuate their homes after an overflow channel at the tallest dam in the US was weakened by heavy rainfall.

    The emergency spillway of the 770 ft (230m) tall Oroville Dam was close to collapse, officials said.

    • Sheri permalink
      February 14, 2017 2:06 am

      Seems stabilized for now, but the weather may bring more rain this week. Evacuation orders are still in effect.

  17. Bitter&twisted permalink
    February 13, 2017 9:33 am

    “Californian children are not going to know what rain is….”

  18. Sheri permalink
    February 14, 2017 2:13 am

    There have been comments asking why a reservoir shouldn’t be filled to capacity. The answer is because it’s February, more rain is coming and snowmelt also. Capacity is to be reached at a certain time of the year. Even then, one must be able to anticipate and react quickly if the situation changes and water levels rise.

    I think part of what really messed this up was the hole in the spillway. People were afraid the rocks and concrete would created problems downstream. So they didn’t let the water flow out a rate that would keep the dam from requiring the use of the emergency spillway. Then they panicked when they thought the emergency spillway would cause erosion, etc. (Looking at it, that should have been obvious.) If the spillway had remained intact, the situation may not have escalated to the need to evacuate 180,000 people. Panic rarely results in good outcomes.

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