To make sense of the fast-developing situation at California's Oroville Dam, Chris spoke today with Scott Cahill, an expert with 40 years of experience on large construction and development projects on hundreds of dams, many of them earthen embankment ones like the dam at Oroville. Scott has authored numerous white papers on dam management, he's a FEMA trainer for dam safety, and is the current owner of Watershed Services of Ohio which specializes in dam projects across the eastern US. Suffice it to say, he knows his "dam" stuff.
Scott and Chris talk about the physics behind the failing spillways at Oroville, as well as the probability of a wider-scale failure from here as days of rain return to California.
Sadly, Scott explains how this crisis was easily avoidable. The points of failure in Oroville's infrastructure were identified many years ago, and the cost of making the needed repairs was quite small -- around $6 million. But for short-sighted reasons, the repairs were not funded; and now the bill to fix the resultant damage will likely be on the order of magnitude of over $200 million. Which does not factor in the environmental carnage being caused by flooding downstream ecosystems with high-sediment water or the costs involved with relocating the 200,000 residents living nearby the dam.
Oh, and of course, these projected costs will skyrocket higher should a catastrophic failure occur; which can't be lightly dismissed at this point.
Scott explains to Chris how this crisis is indicative of the neglect of the entire US national dam system. Oroville is one of the best-managed and maintained dams in the country. If it still suffered from too much deferred maintenance, imagine how vulnerable the country's thousands and thousands of smaller dams are. Trillions of dollars are needed to bring our national dams up to satisfactory status. How much else is needed for the country's roads, railsystems, waterworks, power grids, etc?
Both Chris and Scott agree that individuals need to shoulder more personal responsibility for their safety than the government advises, as -- let's face it -- the government rarely admits there's a problem until it's an emergency. Katrina, Fukushima, Oroville -- we need to critically parse the information being given to us when the government and media say 'it's all under control', as well as have emergency preparations already in place should swift action be necessary.