I’ve written so much about water lately that I’m beginning to feel like the Ancient Mariner, but this story is so disturbing I feel compelled to share it. I’ve written about the near disaster at the Oroville Dam during the spring rains here, here and here.
But what no one knew until recently was how close the residents of Oroville came to losing their lives due to combination of official complacency and incompetence.
The Associated Press has completed an investigation and the results aren’t a vote of confidence for California bureaucrats.
California officials were aware of structural problems with the main dam spillway for years and had made what they termed "repairs" that supposedly fixed the problem. And that was true as long as the spillway was just the world’s longest and steepest skateboard ramp, but when it had to be used to move water the problems began.
And the emergency spillway was even worse. As far back as 2005 environmental groups warned the earthen spillway wasn’t sturdy enough to handle the overflow and required concrete reinforcement. The California Department of Water Resources said there, there now, everything is fine and the legislature would rather spend money on sanctuary cities.
The then drought ended with the spring rain. After only six days of use the main spillway began to fail. The rushing water tore a hole the size of a football field in the concrete. Oroville dam managers then "failed to acknowledge — or perhaps recognize — that while they were busy dealing with one crisis, they were creating a possible new one."
The managers asked the Army Corps of Engineers for an exemption to the rule that required them to release water from the dam down the spillway. According to the AP, "Engineers did this because they wanted to inspect the hole, study how much bigger it might get and think of a way to keep the spillway from crumbling further."
But they didn’t get an exemption from the weather and it continued to rain and the water continued to build up behind the dam.
Sheriff Kory Honea was concerned and kept pressing dam officials for accurate information. They assured him that even if water overflowed the dam the emergency spillway could handle it. Then while Honea was in the emergency operations center he overheard someone say, "This is not good." Water had started down the emergency spillway and it began to collapse.
Honea didn’t wait; he ordered an emergency evacuation. What no one outside dam officials knew at the time was the lives of area citizens depended on a main spillway that was thought to be too damaged to use. As Honea observed if it had failed, too, "it was not whether people would die, but how many would die."
Fortunately, the main spillway didn’t fail after being pressed into use, but that’s no thanks to California officials. They still contend the dual spillway failures were like a car getting a flat tire. Sure, if the car belonged to a moonshiner fleeing from revenuers and the tires were bald.
As the report found, "Ultimately, the spillways broke apart while handling just a fraction of the water they were designed to carry."
That is an indictment of California officialdom. Now politicians are pointing fingers and bureaucrats are covering behinds. Let’s hope someone competent fixes the problem before next spring.
Michael Reagan, the eldest son of President Reagan, is a Newsmax TV analyst. A syndicated columnist and author, he chairs The Reagan Legacy Foundation. Michael is an in-demand speaker with Premiere speaker’s bureau. Read more reports from Michael Reagan — Go Here Now.
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