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Why Should People in the Mississippi River Basin Care about the Oroville Dam?

February 21, 2017Patrick NunnallyRiversComments Off on Why Should People in the Mississippi River Basin Care about the Oroville Dam?

I’m writing this on the afternoon of Monday, February 20, a week after heavy rain across northern California caused Lake Oroville to overflow and an emergency spillway to become activated for the first time in the 49 years the Oroville Dam has been in existence.  Nearly 200,000 people were evacuated when engineers and public safety professionals feared that the spillway would collapse, releasing a devastating flood.  This week, tonight and tomorrow, another rain event known as an “atmospheric river” is taking place; by the time you read this Oroville Dam and the Feather River may once again be at the top of national headlines.

The Oroville Dam crisis has been the subject of a great deal of smart journalism.  Brad Plumer at offers a good basic explainer of the various structures on the ground and how the system is supposed to work; the Sacramento Bee complements this account with historical background explaining some of the decisions made when the dam was built in the 1960s. Writing in Circle of Blue, Brett Walton puts the Oroville situation in the context of recurring issues of dam safety across the nation, while Ethan Elkind broadens his consideration to more general policy implications of the crisis. City Lab raised the issue of how Oroville speaks to the country’s ongoing infrastructure issues, although the writer (and editor? page designer?) got some flack for politicizing the question of how infrastructure might be funded.  Three other articles take up more focused, though still important, subjects: American Rivers argues for more natural management of rivers and two articles connect Oroville Dam and Lake to California’s statewide water management system and the provision of water in faraway Los Angeles.

Whew! That’s a lot of information and knowledge to process, largely concentrated on California and on national water issues. All speak of Oroville as a “wake up call” with far reaching “implications.” The real connection to the Mississippi River basin, though, comes from articles that raise the specter of how a changing climate is contributing to the Oroville crisis.  At the very least, the repeated atmospheric rivers that have pounded California this winter seem to be symptoms of a warmer, more humid atmosphere.  More subtle arguments point out that precipitation that falls as rain rather than snow has a direct impact on intensity of flood events.  Finally, not only are California’s dams and water infrastructure showing the signs of years of neglect and deferred maintenance, but, as one observer puts it, the water system was “designed and built in an old climate, one in which extremely warm years were less common and snowpack was more reliable.”

The problem of how to design water management for a new climate is a challenge the entire country is, or should be, facing. Oroville is indeed a wake up call, that we should be hearing in the Mississippi River basin as well.


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