California’s dam inspectors appear to be doing their jobs well. Unfortunately, too many dam operators aren’t, and could be placing the public at risk.
That’s the conclusion we reached after reading a report by The Sacramento Bee’s Ryan Sabalow and Dale Kasler. It’s also a part of life in California. As vast swaths of Southern California smolder from unusual December firestorms, people naturally are focusing less on potential flooding and dam safety.
But as the effects of climate change become more pronounced across California, we’ll be left with no choice except to invest in flood control and other water-related public works.
Kasler and Sabalow reviewed reports by safety inspectors who identified problems at 93 dams, 91 of which are “high hazard” – meaning people live and work downstream. They’re owned by a collection of operators from local water districts to utilities to the mighty Metropolitan Water District, which provides water to 19 million Southern Californians.
Most problems are minor, and no dam seems likely to fail soon. But small problems can become big problems. Or as Jeffrey Mount, a water expert at the Public Policy Institute of California, says: “You’re lucky until you’re not.”
That became evident when the Oroville Dam spillway crumbled in February under pressure from the deluge in California’s wettest rainy season on record. The final analysis of what went wrong at Oroville is not complete. But some experts believe tree roots clogged the drainage system, undermining the spillway and leading to a $600 million rebuilding project.
A telling example cited involves North Fork Dam, which was built in 1939, holds water from the small Pacheco Creek, and, loosely speaking, is operated by the Pacheco Pass Water District in Santa Clara County. Year after year, inspectors cited damage caused by roots and cracks in the spillway. It all went uncorrected until 2016, when the reason for this lackadaisical approach to dam safety became evident: The Pacheco Pass district was being dissolved.
Now, the potential bill is coming into focus. In August, the Santa Clara Valley Water District, which hopes to take over the Pacheco district, submitted an application to the California Water Commission seeking $484.5 million to expand the 6,000-acre-foot reservoir to hold 141,000 acre-feet.
The Water Commission is scheduled to meet Wednesday to consider that request and 10 others like it. Competition will be stiff. The commission has $2.7 billion to allocate for water storage as part of the $7.5 billion Proposition 1 bond approved by voters in 2014. Requests total more than $10 billion.
The Department of Water Resources puts the cost of repairing dams statewide at $5 billion. And there are obstacles to raising money, not the least of which is that a 1996 initiative requires that dam owners obtain a two-thirds vote from those affected to raise taxes to pay for repairs.
Despite President Donald Trump’s promise to invest heavily in infrastructure, Congress seems incapable of funding public works. Last year Congress approved legislation to help reinforce dams, but authorized a mere $10 million nationwide to do it. None of that paltry amount has been appropriated.
In 2011, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated a mega-storm of the sort that has struck California before could cause $725 billion in damage. The Central Valley Flood Protection Board estimates we must spend up to $21 billion during the next three decades to prepare for Central Valley floods. Statewide, the number exceeds $50 billion.
Californians must face the hard costs of living in this re-engineered state. Though the cost is high, the price of not acting would be many, many times higher.