Learning from Oroville Dam Disaster: State Water Board Proposes Climate Change Resolution

, Former climate scientist | February 15, 2017, 3:38 pm EDT
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Earlier this week, while areas downstream of Oroville Dam were still under an evacuation order, California’s State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board) released a draft resolution for a comprehensive response to climate change. It resolves that the agency will embed climate science into all of its existing work, both to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, and to build resilience to the impacts of climate change. In doing so, the State Water Board demonstrates how public agencies can respond more proactively to the very real challenges that global warming is bringing our way.

A failure to plan is a plan to fail

After five years of record drought conditions, in just a couple months, California has received more rain than reservoirs can store. This may seem strange but it is exactly what climate scientists have predicted for the state since the 1980s: prolonged warm and dry conditions punctuated by intense wet spells, with more rain and less snow, causing both drought and floods.

Despite having a wealth of science at our fingertips describing how our water system is changing due to global warming, too often we have not put this information to use. During the federal relicensing of the Oroville Dam, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) chose not to assess how climate change might affect the dam’s operation. In response to this “foundational error,” Butte County and Plumas County sued DWR. Their suit argues that the environmental analysis associated with the dam relicensing should be rejected as unscientific:

“Rather than rigorously assessing climate change, DWR’s Oroville FEIR [Final Environmental Impact Report] presumes that hydrologic variability from the previous century ‘is expected to continue in the foreseeable future’ and that it would be ‘speculative’ to further analyze other climate change scenarios…Due to this error, the FEIR is predicated upon a hypothetical future that DWR knows to be dangerously false.”

While we know that the past is no longer a predictor of the future, we continue to plan for the past. It’s easier, it seems less expensive, but it has huge, hidden costs. Costs now being borne by the nearly 200,000 residents who were evacuated, affected counties, and, eventually, taxpayers who will pay to repair the damage.

This is why it is incredibly important to plan for the future, and particularly more “extreme” climate conditions. We are on the precipice of giving away almost $3 billion of public money for new water infrastructure without requiring these new water projects use climate science and existing modeling results to assess how the proposed projects would fare under more “extreme” climate conditions. We have repeatedly encouraged the California Water Commission to require that new water projects provide a quantitative assessment of the impact of climate “extremes” on project operations. However, in December 2016, the California Water Commission approved regulations without this requirement.

State Water Board commits to using climate science

Mistakes are an inevitable part of life, but we need to learn from our mistakes. The State Water Board has taken an important step forward by drafting this resolution, which requires that the State and Regional Water Boards rely on sound modeling and analyses that incorporate relevant climate change data and model outputs to account for and address impacts of climate change in permits, plans, policies, and decisions.

There are many lessons from the Oroville Dam crisis, including the critical importance of using science to prepare for a future that will be different from the past due to global warming. We applaud the State Water Board for their leadership and hope other agencies will soon follow and commit to making better decisions using climate science.

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  • JRT256

    This appears to be total nonsense. Normal use of the dam’s spillway for a short length of time and it starts to fall apart and you say that the problem is Climate Change. Either the spillway was inadequatly designed to start with or there are problems with it related to its age.

    Otherwise, are we to conclude that the designers of the dam figured that it would never fill up?

    • Joffan

      A third option: The design was OK, the age wouldn’t be a problem except that maintenance that should have been done has not been done.

      This would fit in well with a political system that gives undue weight to reducing taxes (and/or vanity projects) at the expense of responsible governance.

  • solodoctor

    One other piece of relevant info should be noted here: the State and Feds were warned by climate and environmental experts in 2005 that this kind of catastrophic situation could happen with the Oroville Dam. They chose to ignore this warning and continue with the status quo: a system conceived and constructed 50+ years ago when the climate was different and the population of the state was 50% of what it is now. Gov Brown’s proposals for the Twin Delta Tunnels is but one more unfortunate example of perpetuating the status quo.

    The Chinese characters for crisis are ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity.’ I hope the State can somehow (luckily) get through this crisis without any severe damage or loss of life. Then I hope our leaders in Sacramento will take these events as an important opportunity to reassess how they addresses our water needs for the coming years. We continue on the same path as we have over the last 50+ years at our peril!