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Executive Summary for February 17th

In this weekly roundup, we analyze key water developments in California, including the Oroville Dam crisis and a climate change resolution from the water board. We also look at the how the state’s flood control system is holding up.

Published on Feb. 17, 2017 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Oroville Dam Crisis

California’s welcomed wet winter has turned troublesome as news of a crisis at the dam on Lake Oroville, 80 miles (130km) north of Sacramento, has spread across the world. On February 7, the state’s second largest reservoir, Lake Oroville, reached its capacity for safe operating, and water was diverted down its large concrete spillway into the Feather River.

But the huge force of the water caused a gulf to erode in the spillway. Dam operators were forced to reduce flows on the spillway, but lake levels continued to increase, and for the first time in the dam’s 50 year history, water began flowing down an earthen emergency spillway.

Last Sunday, the emergency spillway also began to erode, causing concern it would fail completely and send a wall of water cascading into communities below. Fearing that catastrophe could strike within the hour, officials ordered nearly 200,000 downstream residents to evacuate. They were later allowed to return home on Tuesday afternoon.

The crisis has shined a light on other issues, including how comprehensively California is considering climate change (and along with it the likelihood of more extreme weather) in its future infrastructure planning; whether the state is doing enough to maintain its aging dams and other water infrastructure; and whether officials should have heeded warnings from environmental groups more than a decade ago about safety at Oroville dam.

Climate Change Resolution

At a February 22 meeting, the State Water Resources Control Board will vote on a resolution to fully make climate change considerations a part of the board’s actions, which builds off a 2007 resolution and takes into account additional duties of the board.

“An updated and revised climate change resolution will give staff clear direction on high-priority topics that will support implementation of the state’s key climate action priorities as identified in the AB 32 Scoping Plan, Safeguarding California Plan and Water Action Plan,” the proposed resolution states. “It will also provide transparency to stakeholders on how the Water Boards will use their programs and authorities to further climate change mitigation and adaption.”

The move was lauded by the Union of Concerned Scientists, which has been urging the Water Commission to require that assessments of climate extremes be a part of new proposed water projects using Proposition 1 money from the 2014 water bond.

“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,” wrote Juliet Christian-Smith, a senior climate scientist with Union of Concerned Scientists, in a recent story highlighting the Oroville dam emergency.

Floods Test System

The emergency situation at Oroville Dam is just one indicator that California’s flood control system is being put to the test this winter, according to the L.A. Times, which cites 16 reservoirs in the state that are 90 percent full.

“Hoping to avoid the situation faced by Lake Oroville, officials are planning large releases of water from reservoirs,” the Times reported. “But that could further strain the hundreds of miles of levees that line the Central Valley’s vast river networks, built to protect homes, businesses and farms from floods.”

It’s not just immediate storms that are the only concern, as the high snowpack melts this spring, it will continue to test the strength of the state’s levees.

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