Mises Wire

Who Will Be Blamed if the Oroville Dam Fails?

Nowadays, references to the New Orleans flooding of 2005 often speak of the disaster as if Hurricane Katrina was the only reason the city flooded. Rarely mentioned is the failure of the levees built by the Army Corps of Engineers. In fact, incompetently built and poorly maintained government infrastructure was a major contributing factor in the severity and ultimate cost of the disaster. For good reason, more honest observers have called the failure of the levees one of the most disastrous engineering failures in U.S. history. And yet, this government-caused disaster is often invoked as evidence of the need for more robust government — to save us from the disasters it causes. 

Today, the Oroville Dam in California is near the point of failure. More than 150,000 people have been ordered to evacuate, and California officials are desperately attempting to fix what is a crumbling and poorly maintained dam. 

However, if the dam fails, how will the disaster be remembered? Will future commentators admit the role of the California and federal governments in laying the groundwork for this disaster? Or will the cause of the likely-deadly Great Oroville Flood of 2017 simply be listed as “rain”? 

Build Now, At Any Cost

The Oroville Dam (completed in 1968) is one of many very-large dams built in the American West during the mid-twentieth century using immense amounts of state and federal funds. Such dams include the Hoover Dam (finished 1936), Grand Coulee Dam (finished 1942), and the Glen Canyon Dam (finished 1966). Like these dams, Oroville is one of the tallest dams in the United States, and also forms one of the largest reservoirs in the nation. 

RELATED: Water Subsidies and Shortages in the American West 

Dam building became something of an obsession for government agencies from the 1930s to the 1960s with the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation competing with each other to build more dams and bigger dams, most of which would have been impossible without federal dollars and federal control of vast swaths of Western land. The power to tax allowed governments to take on large debts at low interest rates. The dams offered huge risks and huge costs no private party could afford. 

While these projects in the West were largely federal in nature, California has long been different in that its irrigation systems and dam operations have offered a more prominent role to state-level agencies. Nevertheless, the methods and politics have been similar: present every new dam as an absolutely necessary and urgent infrastructure project that must be built as soon as possible, with little regard for present or future cost. 

Oroville Dam was no different, and from the very beginning, proponents of the dam lied about its full cost. 

In a lengthy analysis of the political battle to win approval for the dam, historian Marc Reisner recounted how Governor Pat Brown — father of the current governor — repeatedly fabricated numbers about the dam’s true cost in order to hoodwink the voters into approving the enormously expensive project through a bond issue in 1959. 

Reisner showed that more honest estimates concluded the dam would cost approximately 3 billion dollars — more than 20 billion in 2016 dollars — so Brown simply invented a number of 1.75 billion. Reisner concluded that Brown knew that “not one” state would vote for such a huge bond issue, so Brown hid the real cost. To get it passed, Brown did what politicians always do — he engaged in fear-mongering and suggested to Southern California voters that they’d run out of water without the new dam. 

But even these methods nearly failed to get the dam approved. 48 of 50 counties in the state voted against the dam.1 The measure only passed because southern Californians, long used to cheap, subsidized water, were happy to see the rest of the state go into debt to pay for even more water. 

Dams Need Maintenance 

While everyone likes to see a shiny new dam or railroad or bridge, the problem with infrastructure projects is that they require maintenance. 

Unfortunately, while it’s fun to build new dams and promise cheap water to many voters and powerful special interests, maintaining those projects is less exciting. 

As The Mercury News has reported, 12 years ago, both California and federal officials refused to consider a demand that California heighten precautions and maintenance standards at the Oroville Dam. In response to the demands, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) said the dam’s emergency features were perfectly fine and that the emergency spillway “was designed to handle 350,000 cubic feet per second and the concerns were overblown.”

But, in a development reminiscent of the Army Corp of Engineers’ failure in New Orleans, state officials began ordering evacuations when flows over the spillway reached a mere “6,000 to 12,000 cubic feet per second” or “5 percent of the rate that FERC said was safe.” 

Basically, thanks to poorly maintained spillways — and perhaps other oversights — the dam itself is being eroded away, and may soon face total failure. 

If it does fail, the dam will have failed less than 50 years after its initial — and very, very expensive — construction. 

The “experts” assure us that this sort of thing has never happened before, of course, and it’s the fault of global warming or it’s just a fluke. 

But, it’s not as if the dam has never been under strain before. As Reisner recounted in 1987:

In February of 1980, in the midst of a long spell of wet Pacific fronts, Oroville Reservoir, despite its capacity of something like a trillion gallons, was full, and the dam was spilling — 70,000 cubic feet per second, the Hudson River in full flood, roaring down the spillway at forty miles per hour, sending a plume of mist a thousand feet in the air. 

At the time, the dam was only 12 years old. Today, the now-49-year old dam isn’t looking nearly as robust.

So, while we can try to blame global warming or bad luck or some other cause invented by government officials, the fact remains that extreme weather has always been a part of life in western North America, and the water going over the dam’s spillway right now is well below what government officials have long claimed it could handle. Mother nature hasn’t exceeded the dam’s limits. The problem is that the government officials in charge of the dam have either failed to maintain the dam properly, or they’ve been wrong about the dam’s capacity all along. 

Who Will be Blamed?

In the wake of the failure of the levees at New Orleans, the federal government couldn’t even be bothered with launching an independent investigation. We’re just told to instead blame global warming, or mother nature and to thank goodness that the federal government was around to throw money at the problem. 

If the Oroville dam fails, we’ll probably see a similar reaction. Even if the dam fails well below its claimed capacity, we’ll be told the dam fell victim to “unprecedented” and “unforeseen” events. FEMA will be sent in, and we’ll all be told that this is just another one of those cases that proves just how much we need government in times of crisis. 

Never mind, of course, who caused the crisis in the first place. 

  • 1See Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, p. 354, Penguin Books. 
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