July 3, 2022 Breaking News, Latest News, and Videos

Ignored Oroville Warning Raises Big Quake, Levee Questions

By Tom Elias

Just because nature allows a delay of many

years while officials dither over a catastro-
phe in the making doesn’t make that disaster

any easier to handle when it finally strikes.

This is one major lesson of the Oroville

Dam spillway crisis that saw the sudden

evacuation of almost 200,000 persons from

their homes when the dam’s emergency

spillway crumbled under the force of mil-
lions of gallons of fast-moving water.

Warnings of precisely this sort of crisis at

Lake Oroville were submitted to the Feder-
al Energy Regulation Commission during a

2005 relicensing process, almost 12 years

before those predictions came true.

“A loss of crest control (which has now

occurred) could not only cause additional

damage to…lands and facilities, but also

cause damages and threaten lives…down-
stream,” environmental groups (Friends of

the River, the South Yuba River Citizens

League and the Sierra Club) cautioned, rec-
ommending relicensing of the dam only if

repairs were made.

Their claim drew scorn from officials of

the state Water Project, which runs the vin-
tage-1968 Oroville Dam. “Our facilities,

including the spillway, are safe during any

conceivable flood event,” said Raphael Torres,

then acting deputy director of the Water

Project. Plus, some of California’s most pow-
erful water districts, including the Metropolitan

Water District of Southern California, didn’t

want to fund a fix. They’ll have to pay now, as

much as $600 million, by some estimates.

FERC, loaded with power industry advo-
cates by then-President George W. Bush, dis-
dained the environmental groups, as it usually


So the background of today’s crisis bears

warnings, both about preparation for likely fu-
ture natural disasters and about what can hap-
pen when industry advocates control powerful

federal agencies, now the case for several cab-
inet-level departments in the Trump adminis-

For California, alarm should be strongest

about earthquakes, and the related issue of le-
vees in the Delta of the Sacramento and San

Joaquin rivers. After the 1971 Sylmar Earth-
quake hit on a previously unknown fault and

destroyed a veterans hospital, among other

buildings, mapping of earthquake faults be-
came a high state priority.

Over the next 20 years, 534 maps of faults

and their possible damage were published.

But in the following 20 years, no new maps

appeared because of budget cuts, leaving the

project about 300 maps shy of where it needs to

be for all residents of known potential damage

areas to be properly warned.

Some areas have used the maps drawn be-
tween 1971 and 1991 to pinpoint buildings that

need retrofitting, with many projects complet-

But most of the other 300-odd known faults

have yet to be mapped.

At the same time, California still lacks a

signficant quake warning system, and probably

can’t complete one without the remaining maps

even if it suddenly became a priority. It’s tough

to warn people at risk in a major quake if you

don’t know what buildings they’re in.

This issue was no priority at all for Gov. Jer-
ry Brown through most of his current go’round

in office. Yes, Brown long supported an early

warning system that might give a minute’s no-
tice before shaking from a Big One hits urban

areas. But through most of his current tenure,

he proposed no state funding for this, saying

the money should come from private or federal

sources. It did not.

Brown shifted in last year’s state budget,

providing $10 million to create such a system,

now in the works from the U.S. Geological

Survey and academic researchers, who hope to

begin putting their system to limited use next


The dithering put California behind other

quake-prone places like Japan and Taiwan.

Why is this important? The original legisla-
tive sponsor of the warning system, Democrat

Alex Padilla, now California secretary of state,

said in 2013 people need a system giving them

“critical seconds to take cover, assist loved

ones or pull safely to the side of the road.”

Even when that system comes online, much

more mapping will be needed. For the biggest

quakes of the last 40 years came in unexpected


The upshot: California’s water system is not

the only area needing better preparation for

coming disasters. The problem, though, is the

same as it was at Oroville before this year’s

massive storms created a crisis: Until an urgent

problem occurs, few believe it ever will. Once

it happens, it may be too late to act.

in Opinion
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