DWR: We’re watching

Oroville Dam report points to ‘long-term systemic failure’ and we must not allow it to continue

We’re not yet quite sure what to make of the independent forensic report on last year’s Oroville Dam incident that was released last week. For one, it’s 584 pages and includes investigation results ranging from initial construction to the interpersonal working relationships of employees at the state Department of Water Resources, which owns the dam. It’s hard to know where to start.

Second, the report doesn’t lay blame on any one chain of events or any one individual or departmental error. It was, as the summary explains, a “long-term systemic failure.” This does not put us at ease, nor should it help those living below the dam sleep at night. Cracks were noted in the spillway as early as 1969, the report says, and their importance was ignored and, ultimately, “normalized.”

Oroville has long felt like a jilted lover in the whole dam scheme. When the structure, which is at the center of the State Water Project, was built in the 1960s, promises were made—many of them lofty, none of them realized. Once it was in place, it was as if the commitments were no longer deemed necessary. (Why buy the cow ….)

The report indicates further that the primary objectives of the DWR, when it came to Oroville Dam, were not infrastructure and maintenance (i.e., the safety of Oroville residents) but rather water delivery to points south and power production to reduce costs. These priorities “came to some extent at the expense of more long-term attention to proactively preventing infrastructure problems and managing the associated risks.”

This is a big eye-opener. DWR has put Butte County at risk in favor of water transfers to our southerly neighbors. Going forward, we must watch vigilantly as repairs are made. Hard questions must be asked. Promises must be made and kept. We know we’ll be watching.