Oroville Dam Crisis Shows Why We Must Invest In Infrastructure

The nation's dams now earn an unnerving D grade.

WASHINGTON ― Every few years an actual or threatened disaster highlights the state of America’s crumbling infrastructure. President Barack Obama, for example, pointed to a 2007 bridge collapse in Minneapolis, which left 13 people dead and dozens of others injured, in his push for more federal funding to overhaul roads, bridges and waterways.

Another potentially catastrophic situation arose in California over the weekend.

Nearly 200,000 people were told to evacuate on Sunday as workers labored to repair a severely damaged spillway below the country’s tallest dam, which holds back California’s second largest reservoir. Heavy storms in recent months had pushed water levels to historic highs at Lake Oroville, which supplies water to central and southern portions of the state.

The situation was so dire at one point that officials issued warnings to multiple communities near the dam. Water levels in the reservoir receded somewhat by late Sunday, giving authorities additional time to bolster an auxiliary spillway. But a new storm system arriving later this week could fill Lake Oroville to the brim once more, with no indication of when the thousands of displaced people will be able to return to their homes.

If President Donald Trump is serious about fixing the nation’s roads, railways, airports and waterways, as he promised during the campaign, he could start with areas like California’s Central Valley. Its flood control systems have transformed the valley into one of the most fertile agricultural zones in the world. But the dams and levees that hold the water ― as the Oroville situation shows ― are in dire need of repair.

The condition of inland waterways across the country is just as bleak. The nation’s dams, which are 52 years old on average, earned a D grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers. The nation’s levees, which were initially used to develop farmland but now often protect communities directly, earned an even worse D-minus. Overall, ASCE estimates that $3.6 trillion in investment is needed by 2020 to revitalize the nation’s infrastructure.

“We need to invest in the ones that are economically critical, and we need to decommission the thousands of dams and levees that are unnecessary and unsafe,” said John Cain, director of conservation for California flood management at the advocacy group American Rivers.

Failure to invest in infrastructure comes at a heavy cost. Collapses in the New Orleans levee system led to mass flooding, billions of dollars in property damage and hundreds of deaths in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

One of Trump’s biggest promises for his first 100 days was to deliver a $1 trillion infrastructure plan to Congress. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) poured cold water over the idea of a large spending package in December, telling reporters he hoped to avoid “a trillion-dollar stimulus.” And with other items on Trump’s agenda ― including the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and an overhaul of the nation’s tax system ― seemingly stalled on Capitol Hill, a major infrastructure bill could take years to land on the president’s desk.

For California in particular, its position as a center of resistance to Trump’s administration ― and his threat to “defund” the state over the issue of immigration ― may hurt its bids for federal disaster relief. On Friday, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency to declare a major disaster and provide $162 million in aid to repair damage caused by the heavy storms in January. FEMA is still assessing whether to do so.

Trump’s denials on the impact of climate change present a deeper problem. Rising tides and extreme weather, such as the deluge of storms California has experienced following a five-year drought, are only going to place more stress on aging infrastructure.

“This is a global problem because the real threat is climate change,” Cain said. “Instead of talking about infrastructure, the question ought to be what is the Trump administration going to do to help us adapt to a changing a climate. Because this is just the beginning.”

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Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly described Lake Oroville as California’s largest water reservoir. That distinction belongs to Lake Shasta.

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