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Understanding Oroville: Apply a Common Sense Approach to U.S. Critical Infrastructure

We live our daily lives surrounded by hazards, most of which we rarely think about. The hazard might exist in worn tires on the car we drive, a roof on our home that is past its age of protecting us, the quality of the food that we eat, or the condition of a dam in our community.

Recent events in California have prompted some to call for the outright end to the use of dams in America.   Why would some choose to simply end the use of all dams and forego the enormous benefits dams provide to our society? Perhaps they don’t understand the essential roles of these structures and the social, economic, and environmental benefits of dams. For the same reasons that you don't stop driving because your car needs new tires, or demolish your home because the roof needs new shingles, you don't tear down thousands of dams that every single day provide us with clean, renewable electricity, clean drinking water, water for agricultural irrigation for the food we eat, public access and recreational use of the reservoirs behind the dams, flood control, and for other environmental benefits.

We are, of course, very concerned about the cause and effects of the recent emergency at Oroville Dam.  This facility provides drinking water to 23 million people in California. That amounts to 2 out of every 3 people living in the state. The water stored in Lake Oroville irrigates 750,000 acres of farmland that helps California farmers feed our families and keep farmers employed. The 2.2 billion kilowatt hours of electricity generated from Oroville’s hydroelectric plant can power 200,000 homes. Lastly, if Oroville Dam was not in place to provide floodwater retention, significant flooding and damage likely would occur throughout the communities below the dam. This dam is an incredibly important piece of the State Water Project in California.  Along with thousands of other dams around the nation delivering similar benefits for us all, it deserves our attention, not our derision.

Independent investigators will review the events that occurred at Oroville, determine why they occurred, and recommend measures that can be implemented to prevent a similar event from occurring again.  Though easy to focus on the negative aspects at Oroville, there are some positive actions to consider. The Oroville dam managers and the greater Butte, Yuma and Sutter counties region had an Emergency Action Plan in place and the public responded quickly when the dam managers identified a potential threat.  These emergency action plans are updated annually and the DWR is required to conduct an annual drill to ensure that the plan is carried out correctly.

Rather than demolish this critical facility, the incident in Oroville is a sign that the time is now for major investments in our infrastructure to improve safety and reliability.  Such an initiative would create thousands of good-paying jobs.  A national debate has begun over the mechanism for investing in our infrastructure: finance v. funding.  How do we find the state and federal resources to upgrade and construct stronger and more sustainable infrastructure; provide rehabilitation and repair, and increase public awareness, safety programs and inspections on our nation’s infrastructure? And for infrastructure, including dams and levees, that no longer serves the purpose for which it was built, how do we work with government agencies to decommission those facilities?

As the nation's foremost dam and levee engineering professionals, the US Society on Dams (USSD) works daily to deliver environmentally sustainable solutions to the nation and the world's water resources challenges. Our country depends on the thousands of dams and over 100,000 miles of levees that provide such an important array of benefits and protection to our homes, communities, and to the nation.  We need that critical infrastructure to serve us safely every day.

Applying common sense and the dedication of all levels of government and the American people, we can and should invest in this critically important part of our nation's daily life as it touches each and every one of us.

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Gene Guilford, Executive Director, United States Society on Dams, 1616 17th Street, Suite 483, Denver, Colorado, 80202. gene@ussdams.org. 303.270.0143. www.ussdams.org

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The United States Society on Dams [USSD] is a world class organization of engineering professionals who are dedicated to advancing the environmentally sustainable science of planning, design, construction, operation and maintenance of dams, levees, and associated civil engineering projects. USSD member engineers lead the nation and work with partner organizations worldwide, to resolve the world’s most critical resource problem: access to clean water.