A High-Water Event

Californians and the rest of the country have just received the latest, unpleasant reminder about the appalling condition of the national infrastructure.

Any lingering, secret hopes that the country’s bridges, dams, water and power supplies might somehow rehabilitate themselves were dashed on Sunday as 200,000 people were told to evacuate their homes when the Oroville Dam in California was declared unsafe.

What was described as “a gaping hole” was found in the concrete of Oroville’s emergency spillway, following major releases from the reservoir. Heavy rains had caused severe damage to the highest dam in the country which, if it gave way, would loose a “30-foot wall of water” on the population located below it.

Fortunately, people were moved out in time, averting a potential disaster of frightening proportions. The water authorities rushed in men and materials to reinforce the dam.

Dump trucks and cement mixers were sent in to shore up the spillway that allows excess water to run out when the lake level rises above 901 feet. The operation was declared successful, and the evacuation order was lifted by mid-week.

Bill Croyle, the state’s acting director of water resources, told the press, “We have addressed the issue … but will continue to increase our mitigation measures to increase its ability to handle a high-water event.” More rain was forecast, but the assessment was that now the dam could handle it.

The emergency came as a shock to everyone: to the residents who without prior warning were ordered to gather up their loved ones and leave immediately — in other words, run for their lives; to the state’s lawmakers, who said they could not believe that safety measures at the dam could have been allowed to become so precarious; and to the rest of the nation, looking on with grim fascination and wondering uneasily whether the next infrastructure emergency might happen in their own neighborhood.

Among the revelations this week was that the auxiliary spillway in question was basically a “dirt, soil rock facility, that worked fine until it had to be used, in which case it didn’t work so well,” as U.S. Rep. John Garamendi (D-Walnut Grove) caustically noted.

“When I think about the fact that the spillway at Oroville did not even have concrete lining on it, I’m just really surprised,” said Rep. Doris Matsui, a Democrat from Sacramento. “I would think that would be the first thing you could do.”

But some people were not surprised. Like the state water experts and the environmental groups which had taken part in a protracted back-and-forth about the problem since 2003, when environmentalists including the Sierra Club called it to the attention of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. In a letter to the agency, they wrote that if not attended to, the spillway had “the potential to cause severe damage to the downstream hillside, project facilities and downstream environments located in the path of the flood release.”

Regulators and the environmental groups collaborated (without malice aforethought) in blocking the needed repairs. California water districts that would have to pay out tens of millions of dollars for it were unwilling to do so. Environmentalists were against a proposal to install gates atop the structure to raise its elevation and thereby prevent catastrophic overflow.

At least one expert, a senior engineer, had opined that it would take a “rare event” to utilize the emergency spillway and that using it “would not affect reservoir control or endanger the dam.” Clearly, rare events do happen.

Meanwhile, just as we were catching our breath at the end (hopefully) of the crisis, an update was issued on the state of the nation’s infrastructure which dispelled any feelings of complacency that what happened in faraway, mudslide-prone California can’t happen here.

The American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) released on Wednesday a list of 55,710 bridges across the country that are in serious trouble.

“America’s highway network is woefully underperforming,” said Alison Premo Black, who conducted the analysis. “It is outdated, overused, underfunded and in desperate need of modernization.”

Among the proud spans on the list were the Throgs Neck in New York, Yankee Doodle in Connecticut and Memorial Bridge in Washington, D.C.

ARTBA has published such lists before, and they helped to bring the huge problem before the public, and pressure politicians, including both major party presidential candidates, into promises of action. For instance, President Donald Trump has proposed a $1 trillion infrastructure program for the next decade.

That proposal has been lost in the flood of events of the administration’s hectic first month. But the drama at Lake Oroville should put the issue of infrastructure back on the national agenda as a matter of high priority.

It is not something that can wait any longer.