× Dismiss

Never Miss an Update.

Water Deeply is designed to help you understand the complex web of environmental, social and economic issues related to water in California. Our editors and expert contributors are working around the clock to bring you greater clarity and comprehensive coverage of the state's water issues.

Sign up to our newsletter to receive our weekly updates, special reports, and featured insights on one of California's most pressing issues.

Oroville Dam

Learning from Oroville: Water Board Proposes Climate Change Resolution

A new resolution from the State Water Resources Control Board would make sure that climate science is integral to all its work, providing a much-needed example for other agencies to follow, writes scientist Juliet Christian-Smith.

Written by Juliet Christian-Smith Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Dk oro spillway damage 4061 02 15 2017
This aerial view looks east toward Oroville Dam and Lake Oroville, showing the damaged spillway with its outflow of 100,000 cubic feet per second (around 2,800 cubic meters per second) at the Butte County site.Dale Kolke / California Department of Water Resources

Earlier this week, while areas downstream of Oroville Dam were still under an evacuation order, California’s State Water Resources Control Board released a draft resolution for a comprehensive response to climate change.

It resolves that the agency will embed climate science into all its existing work, both to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and to build resilience to the impacts of climate change. In doing so, the state water board demonstrates how public agencies can respond more proactively to the challenges that global warming is bringing our way.

A Failure to Plan Is a Plan to Fail

After five years of record drought conditions, California has received more rain in just a couple of months than its reservoirs can store. This may seem strange but it is exactly what climate scientists have predicted for the state since the 1980s: prolonged warm and dry conditions punctuated by intense wet spells, with more rain and less snow, causing both drought and floods.

Despite having a wealth of science at our fingertips describing how our water system is changing due to global warming, too often we have not put this information to use. During the federal relicensing of the Oroville Dam, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) chose not to assess how climate change might affect the dam’s operation.

In response to this “foundational error,” Butte County and Plumas County sued the DWR. Their suit argues that the environmental analysis associated with the dam relicensing should be rejected as unscientific. It stated, “Rather than rigorously assessing climate change, DWR’s Oroville FEIR [Final Environmental Impact Report] presumes that hydrologic variability from the previous century ‘is expected to continue in the foreseeable future’ and that it would be ‘speculative’ to further analyze other climate change scenarios … Due to this error, the FEIR is predicated upon a hypothetical future that DWR knows to be dangerously false.”

While we know that the past is no longer a predictor of the future, we continue to plan for the past. It’s easier, it seems less expensive, but it has huge, hidden costs – costs now being borne by the nearly 200,000 residents who were evacuated, by the affected counties, and, eventually, by taxpayers who will pay to repair the damage.

This is why it is highly important to plan for the future, and particularly more “extreme” climate conditions. We are on the precipice of giving away almost $3 billion of public money for new water infrastructure without requiring these new water projects to use climate science and existing modeling results to assess how the proposed projects would fare under more “extreme” climate conditions. The Union of Concerned Scientists has repeatedly encouraged the California Water Commission to require that new water projects provide a quantitative assessment of the impact of climate “extremes” on project operations. However, in December 2016 the California Water Commission approved regulations without this requirement.

State Water Board Commits to Using Climate Science

Mistakes are an inevitable part of life, but we need to learn from our mistakes. The state water board has taken an important step forward by drafting its resolution, which requires that the state and regional water boards rely on sound modeling and analyses that incorporate relevant climate change data and model outputs to account for and address impacts of climate change in permits, plans, policies and decisions.

There are many lessons from the Oroville Dam crisis, including the critical importance of using science to prepare for a future that will be different from the past due to global warming. We applaud the state water board for its leadership and hope other agencies will soon follow and commit to making better decisions using climate science.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

Never miss an update. Sign up here for our Water Deeply newsletter to receive weekly updates, special reports and featured insights on one of the most critical issues of our time.

Become a Contributor.

Have a story idea? Interested in adding your voice to our growing community?

Learn more