Keeping California Wet (Not Flooded) Is Expensive

The Oroville Dam crisis shows us the dangers of not spending enough to maintain -- or build -- infrastructure.

Spray from water coming down the damaged main spillway of the Oroville Dam explodes over rocks Tuesday.

Photographer: Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

Just before Christmas in 1955, the northern two-thirds of California were drenched by what meteorologists nowadays call an atmospheric river -- a gusher of warmish precipitation from the Pacific Ocean tropics. Storms earlier that month had piled up snow in the Sierra Nevada mountains, but the atmospheric river delivered rain up to an elevation of about 10,000 feet. The rain, and the melting snow, sent rivers over their banks in much of the state -- as well as in parts of Oregon, Nevada, and even Washington and Idaho.

The worst flooding was along the Feather River, which pours out of the mountains northwest of Lake Tahoe into the Sacramento Valley. On Dec. 23, the flow at the foothill town of Oroville peaked at 203,000 cubic feet per second -- more than twice the average discharge of the Missouri River when it hits the Mississippi at St. Louis. This flooded a few houses in Oroville, but the real damage came down on the valley floor. In Yuba City, about 30 miles downstream from Oroville and 45 miles upstream from Sacramento, a levee broke in the middle of the night, flooding most of the city and killing 38 people. Overall more than 382,000 acres in the Sacramento Valley were submerged, some for months.

Clearly something needed to be done. That something was building what at the time was the world's tallest dam -- about as tall as the MetLife Building in Manhattan  -- on the Feather River just upstream from Oroville. Yes, the same dam (or least the same dam complex; the problems were with a spillway and emergency spillway just north of the actual dam) that almost 200,000 downstream residents were instructed to flee from earlier this week. Those people are now returning to their homes, but I doubt they'll be able to breathe easy until the rainy season ends in April or May.

So that's one lesson from this week's scary events in Oroville and environs: Even with the massive water-management infrastructure built by the state of California and the federal government in the 1930s through 1970s, the state's really wet years remain really dangerous.

What are some of the other lessons? I've been reading a lot of coverage of the Oroville near-disaster (and maybe still-to-be-disaster), and I've discerned two main narratives.

One is that the state and federal governments failed to take the safety of the dam and its spillways seriously enough, in part because the main users of the water from the dam (Southern California cities and San Joaquin Valley farmers) didn't want to pay for it. The San Jose Mercury News reported that, 12 years ago, environmental groups had pushed for improvements in the emergency spillway as part of the dam's relicensing process, but their concerns were brushed aside by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and state Department of Water Resources. Meanwhile, the San Francisco Chronicle discovered that while state dam safety inspectors had checked out the emergency spillway at Oroville 14 times since 2008, they apparently "never considered the integrity" of the hillside below that turned out to be the source of last weekend's disaster fears.

The other narrative is that Oroville's problems are evidence of California's failure since the 1970s to build any new dams or other major water infrastructure. From Breitbart News, which has had some pretty solid coverage of the Oroville Dam's travails:

California Republicans and Central Valley Democrats have pushed for new flood control reservoirs, but environmental restrictions have prevented building a large state- or federally-funded reservoir … in 38 years.

The "flood control" part is a little misleading. I'm not aware of any proposed reservoirs that would have alleviated the current stress on the Oroville Dam. But substitute "water supply," and it makes sense. The floods of 1955 provided a dramatic impetus, but the real reason for building the dam was to make it possible to send more water southward. Lots more water. The Oroville Dam was and is the linchpin of the spectacularly ambitious State Water Project that Edmund G. "Pat" Brown, elected California's governor in 1958, made a key focus of his two terms in office. As the late Marc Reisner described the project in his book "Cadillac Desert":

Oroville would be not only the world’s tallest dam, but its fourth most massive. San Luis, in the Coast Range foothills farther south, would be the fifth most massive dam in the world, nearly two miles long. Two of the world’s biggest dams; the world’s longest aqueduct; the world’s highest pump lift, surmounted by the world’s most powerful pumps -- five full batteries of pumps; a chain of smaller dams and reservoirs strung out to receive the water -- all of this would be incredibly expensive.

"Expensive" is the key word here. It's what unites the two narratives of what went wrong at Oroville. Making the dam safer would have been expensive; building more dams elsewhere would have been expensive, too. The theme of Reisner's classic book is that federal agencies and the Western states spectacularly underestimated the true financial and environmental cost of damming the West's rivers for flood control, energy generation and water supply. By the time the book was published, in 1986, state and federal politicians and bureaucrats had more or less come around to that view. So they stopped building dams.

Still, all that infrastructure described by Reisner got built. Some other dreamed-of aspects of the State Water Project -- among them dams on the Eel River near the Northern California coast, and the Peripheral Canal to make it easier to move water southward past the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta -- didn't come to fruition, although the current governor, Jerry Brown (Pat's son), still wants to dig a massive tunnel to do the job envisioned for the Peripheral Canal.

But it turns out that just keeping the state's existing water infrastructure functioning is really expensive, too. A state official estimated that fixing the hole in the main spillway at Oroville will cost between $100 million and $200 million. The cost of building an emergency spillway that can actually be used would come on top of that. And until the work is done, the Lake Oroville reservoir will have to be kept well below capacity, possibly restricting State Water Project deliveries.

Reisner believed that the West's water infrastructure was too expensive, and he mused that the civilization it enabled ("the most ambitious desert civilization the world has seen") might not have staying power. I wouldn't go quite that far. But this week's events are a certainly a reminder that it doesn't come cheap.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.