California crisis: that damn dam

A little over a year ago, I wrote about California’s alarming drought issues and why people should care about it more.

Well, don’t worry. The drought that you likely never knew about is no longer a problem. It’s started raining in California. A lot.

In fact, the volume and intensity of the rain is so great that it’s created an environmental crisis by damaging the nation’s tallest dam, causing nearly 200,000 people to evacuate. The Oroville dam impounds Lake Oroville, the second-largest man-made lake in the state of California, which sits in the Sierra Nevada foothills in the north.

When the river floods, water is released down the concrete spillway in controlled fashion.

Earlier this month during a period of heavy rain, when water started shooting erratically from the dam, it was discovered that a giant fissure had opened in the spillway.

oroville-dam

And fissure probably isn’t the right word. At 300 feet wide and 45 feet deep, it’s more like a crater. Officials diverted the floodwater to the dam’s emergency spillway, which had never been used, and thus never properly maintained.

In 2005, environmental groups warned that the emergency spillway should be lined with concrete to prevent a potential disaster if it is ever needed, but officials ignored their requests.

Not unpredictably, the emergency spillway, which is basically just a natural slide down a mountain, is quickly eroding, and towns that lie near the water runoff now find themselves in mortal danger. Hence the evacuations.

This environmental crisis is important for three reasons: it highlights the need to improve oroville-dam-craterall of our nation’s dams.

Second, it emphasizes the danger of global warming, which is responsible for these sudden and severe patterns of weather. How the f&8%$ else did California go from a horrific drought to one of its rainiest seasons in history in just over a year?

Third, it shows that while politicians like to introduce legislation to create new infrastructure – so they can brag about all the fancy bridges and buildings they had built – when, in reality, money needs to be spent on fixing old stuff. It’s not as glamorous, but it’s important. Clearly.

But aside from the big issues like infrastructure and global warming, we need to keep in mind that when nearly 200,000 people are forced to evacuate, that’s tends of thousands of lives that are being suddenly upended. Who can’t go to work. Who must leave their homes with an uncertainty if they’ll ever return.

And if the goal of 2017 is to have more empathy for our fellow men and women who we share this great planet with, then this is an appropriate time to do so.

Leaks in California.

Leaks in the White House.

Stay tuned, folks.

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