Executive Summary for March 31st

In this weekly roundup, we analyze water developments in California, including efforts to fix Oroville’s spillway and a new bill accelerating the approval of dams. We also look at how subsidence is threatening infrastructure.

Published on March 31, 2017 Read time Approx. 2 minutes

The Race to Fix Oroville Dam

The race is on to fix the problems of the damaged spillway at Lake Oroville before next year’s rainy season begins.

After an independent panel of dam experts weighed in, it’s not clear yet whether those fixes will be permanent or temporary.

The trouble first began on February 7, when a massive crater formed in the dam’s main spillway and the emergency spillway put into use for the first time couldn’t hold up to the task.

Bill Croyle, acting director of the California Department of Water Resources, told reporters that the spillway would be usable by November 1, although the plan for how that’s going to happen hasn’t yet been revealed.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported that a panel of dam experts found that “water is seeping up from the ground beneath the chute, that the structure is too thin in many places to support outflows, and that the earth that holds up the spillway is riddled with empty space.” They also concluded that it was unlikely permanent fixes could be made this year, although it could be made “safe and functional by winter.”

Subsidence Is Damaging Water Infrastructure

Parts of California are sinking and causing concern about damage to critical infrastructure.

The culprit appears to be subsidence caused by the overpumping of groundwater, which accelerated in some places due to a lack of surface water during California’s drought.

Reporting for the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University, Felicity Barringer writes, “Now that the rains have come back with a vengeance, water managers have a new reality: Like the topsoil, structures built 40 years ago to contain floodwaters are cracking, too. Thanks to the damage, they can’t hold as much water.”

In the Central Valley city of Corcoran, water manager Dustin Fuller is directing a levee-raising project to fight against the potential floodwaters that could come this spring. “Fuller says the levee used to be tall enough. Due to subsidence it’s sunk and now it’s not,” reported KVPR.

A map released by NASA shows the areas of California hardest hit by subsidence.

Accelerating Dam Construction

A new bill, H.R. 1654, put forth in Congress by California’s representative, Tom McClintock, would seek to speed up the process for approving the construction of new dams by requiring agencies to complete their environmental review within a year.

Pacific Standard reported that some experts believe the bill “presents an unrealistic timeframe given that any major modern dam proposal includes dozens of detailed scientific, engineering, and safety studies running to thousands of pages.”

Gary Wockner, a board member of the Waterkeeper Alliance, told the magazine, “It takes significant amounts of time to analyze and understand the enormous environmental impacts that dams wreak on our rivers and environment. Trying to truncate that process is anti-science, anti-environment, and undermines the public’s trust as well as current federal law.”

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