Will the crisis at Oroville Dam become a catalyst for change?

Jeffrey Mount, a leading expert on California water policy, remembers the last time a crisis at the Oroville Dam seemed likely to prompt reform. It was 1997 and the lake risked overflowing, while levees further downstream failed and several people died.

“If this doesn’t galvanize action, I don’t know what will,” Mount said he thought at the time. But spring came, the waters receded and no changes came to pass.

Now another threat looms in Oroville, where deteriorating spillways forced widespread evacuations, and more heavy rain is around the corner. State officials have remained focused on quick fixes at the dam needed to prevent catastrophic flooding, but some are already thinking about how the crisis could spur long-term shifts in policy.

It’s a conversation that’s gaining momentum in think tanks and government offices from Sacramento to Washington, and it touches on climate change, infrastructure spending and statewide water policy.

Wade Crowfoot, a former advisor to Gov. Jerry Brown who now leads the Water Foundation, a nonprofit research organization in Sacramento, compared the situation to the state’s years-long drought.

“This is a wake-up call,” he said. “The drought reminded us we need to use water more wisely. Oroville reminds us that we need to upgrade our infrastructure and our management to move water more wisely.”

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In 2014, the drought prompted Brown to sign the state’s first-ever law for managing groundwater, which had been depleted as farmers tried to keep crops alive. Now there are new considerations as California strains under one of its wettest winters on record. 

Crowfoot said officials should cut back Southern California’s reliance on water delivered from the northern reservoirs including Lake Oroville, reducing pressure on the state’s infrastructure by increasing water recycling or stormwater capture. Another step could be focusing on sending more water to aquifers, replenishing groundwater supplies.

With Oroville the subject of round-the-clock news coverage, state leaders can “treat it as an opportunity to rethink how we’re providing water and moving water,” Crowfoot said.

California has always grappled with cycles of drought and deluge — Gov. Leland Stanford used a rowboat to reach his inauguration in 1862 — but the problems are expected to be exacerbated by climate change.

Environmentalists view Oroville as a reminder of that looming threat.

“This is a dam that was designed in the ’50s and built in the ’60s,” said Adrienne Alvord, a California-based director of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It was built for a climate we no longer have.”

Infrastructure needs to be assessed based on the increasing chance of extreme weather, she said, just like buildings near fault lines are constructed to deal with the possibility of strong earthquakes.


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A reference to "curtailing" Southern California's reliance on Northern California reservoirs was modified to clarify that the sentence did not involve the state water board's formal process of curtailing water deliveries.

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