Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
KPBS Midday Edition

Oroville Dam Emergency Puts California Dams In The Spotlight

A rainbow is shown over the Oroville Dam in this undated photo.
John Larimore / Office of Emergency Services
A rainbow is shown over the Oroville Dam in this undated photo.

Oroville Dam Emergency Puts California Dams In The Spotlight
Oroville Dam Emergency Puts California Dams In The Spotlight GUEST:Peter Gleick, founder, Pacific Institute

Another storm system is in the forecast for Northern California including the area north of Sacramento near the Oroville Dam. On Tuesday a mandatory evacuation order was lifted meaning people living along the feather river could go home. They were evacuated after torrential rains last weekend. They raise questions about the Oroville Dam. Dancers workers are continuing to shore up a badly eroded emergency spillway. It residents waited outside a store that shut down on Sunday. The order came after the reservoir outside of town had threatened to pursue a emergency spillway structure. Most of the residence cleared out in a hurry. People for more than 30 miles downriver. Yesterday they said the situation has changed. Tons of rocks secured with concrete have read dust reinforce the spillway by releasing the water the reservoir level was that of the dangers on. With the caveat that they need to be ready to leave again they were told they could go home. Less than an hour after the order was lifted, Jason and his three kids pulled into the driveway and impact their SUB. We got the green light to come back home. I'm really happy and thankful for that. 's daughter said she was relieved but still thinking about the potential danger upstream. To know that we are safe but what if it happens again. Could still happen if they don't make it strong enough?. -- The chief addressed that very concern. I want to reiterate the spillway has been stable for Reporter: Days. He said he is confident that there will be enough room in the lake to take the runoff. The storms will arrive tomorrow with several more behind. The crisis at the Oroville Dam did not come as a surprise to environmentalists. The experts have been warning state officials about the condition of our waterways for years. Joining me is Peter Gleick a founder of think tank dedicated to water issues. Welcome to the program. Thank you for having me. Has the Oroville Dam been the focus of concern in recent years? I think the crisis is about of -- a bit of surprise. We do know that nationwide and in California we have more problems with our water infrastructure. We saw the crisis in Flint, Michigan, with old piping and systems. We are clearly investing in lots of infrastructure nationwide especially water related infrastructure, but there was no hint that there was going to be the failure at the main spillway at the Oroville Dam and the use of emergency spillway. I think that took a lot of people by surprise. What are some of the reasons for this lack of maintenance? Part of it is that we sometimes like to build new things but we are not so willing to spend the money to maintain and repair all things. We are investing in public infrastructure. We don't like to take taxes and the taxes that we pay and the fees that we pay for our water and electricity in our waste disposal postings are supposed to pay for maintenance. We've just been reluctant to spend some of that money. What has resulted is problems in a huge backlog of expenses that we need to pay for. I think the crisis is the indication of this bigger problem that we have. Is it fair though considering that we are seeing the weather extremes to point to state officials for lack of maintenance? We've had years of drought football followed by torrential rainfall. Was anybody able to see that coming or is that just as he say sort of an act of God? This is been mother nature giving us a little bit of a wake-up call. All natural disasters are combination of mother nature and human actions. We built up against our lovelies and floodplains. We build big dams to provide water supply but then we move downstream. It is a combination of natural events and human responses. It is also proved that we are changing climate now. We know that climate is changing and humans are responsible. Yet we are not fully understanding what the implications are going to be for coaster waterways and are infrastructure that was built for different climate. That is a new part of the equation. The extreme offense five years of severe drought probably the worst drought on record followed by what's looking like the wettest year a record is a bit of a break up call for all of us to start taking this climate problem more seriously than we have. We've been talking about this for decades and doing nothing about it. The $100 billion in infrastructure projects is being served by California to possibly be included in a possible national infrastructure bill. That money contains only new projects without money going to maintain infrastructure. Is that indicative of the mindset you are talking about? That is part of our problem. We are arguing about building new dance in California. Whether or not you think that is a good idea we also ought to be spending money on maintaining what we have. The infrastructure we built in the 20th century in the distribution system and the wastewater is incredibly important to us. Yet we are not maintaining them adequately. When we don't, then we have these problems and we have to spend far more money in repairs or emergency evacuations then we would've if we would've properly maintained the system to begin with. How would you suggest California go about assessing the water infrastructure maintenance? We do a good job in California compared to many other parts of the country and trying to figure out what we have and the engineers on the water managers are mostly doing a really good job and deserve credit for what they're doing. We need to be a little more careful. We need to think about these events and what they mean. We probably ought to be inspecting these big dams more than we are. Oroville Dam was built in 1968. Let's inspect them and make the repairs that are necessary and figure out what extreme events are going to meet in the future and whether this old infrastructure is going to be able to handle the changes that are coming. I've been speaking with Peter Gleick a founder of the Pacific Institute . Thank you. My pleasure.

The problems at the Oroville Dam in Northern California have put a spotlight on the state's other dams.

Seventeen of California's 1,585 dams are listed as being in poor condition, according to a story by The New York Times that cites the National Inventory of Dams.

Peter Gleick is the founder of the Pacific Institute, a think tank which focuses on water issues.

Gleick said federal and state governments are underinvesting in infrastructure, especially when it comes to water-related infrastructure.

"You know we don't like to pay taxes and yet the taxes that we pay and the fees we pay for our water and our electricity, our waste disposal, those kinds of things are supposed to pay for maintenance and yet we've just been reluctant to spend some of that money. And what's resulted is problems at some of our infrastructure and a huge backlog of expenses that we need to pay for and I think the crisis at Oroville is just an indication of this bigger problem that we have," Gleick said.

On Wednesday's Midday Edition, Gleick discusses the lack of investment in maintenance and the impact of climate change on the nation's infrastructure.

What questions do you have about the Statewide General Election coming up on Nov. 8? Submit your questions here, and we'll try to answer them in our reporting.