Selected tag(s): natural infrastructure

The hidden opportunity for water storage in California

Aerial photo released by the California Department of Water Resources, showing the damaged spillway with eroded hillside in Oroville

California’s historic winter ended the drought in many parts of the state and piled up record levels of snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. With so much precipitation, surface water infrastructure – our network of dams, reservoirs and levees – has been called into action like never before, and in some cases has struggled to handle the influx of flows.

With spring temperatures on the rise, snowmelt and runoff have accelerated, adding another wave of stress to the system. And with snowpack still at 192% of average, there is even more runoff on the way.

So where will all this water go?

With many reservoirs near capacity already, water managers have had to allow spring snowmelt to flow out through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and into the ocean. This is inevitable given the sheer amount of water in the system this year, and in fact, these occasional high flows provide multiple benefits to ecosystems and coastal communities.

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What it’s going to take to fund California’s water infrastructure

Central Valley's levee system is damaged and needs repair

Crews are working to repair damage to the Central Valley's levee system.

The situation at Oroville Dam garnered national attention and brought into clear focus the limitations of our aging flood protection infrastructure – California’s complex system of dams, levees, and bypasses – as well as the need for greater investment in maintaining and upgrading this system.

It is appropriate, then, that Governor Brown recently unveiled a plan to bolster dam safety and flood protection. By requiring emergency action plans, beefing up our dam inspection program and increasing our investment in emergency response, Governor Brown is taking an important first-step in tackling this difficult problem.

This comes at an especially important time as infrastructure maintenance is at the forefront of state and national discussions, and we still have a few months to go before we are out of the rainy season.

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What the Oroville Dam crisis tells us about natural infrastructure

Oroville Dam

Oroville Dam is located in the Sierra Nevada foothills about 80 miles north of Sacramento. At 770 feet, it's the tallest dam in the U.S.

The crisis at Oroville Dam in Northern California has abated, but problems could return with more rain in the forecast for later this week.

If you haven’t heard, the reservoir behind the dam reached capacity last weekend, sending water over an emergency spillway for the first time since its construction in 1968. Authorities ordered more than 180,000 people downstream to evacuate their homes over concerns that the spillway could fail, sending an enormous uncontrolled rush of water down the Feather and Sacramento Rivers.

While the evacuation order has since been lifted, our thoughts still go out to those affected. We continue to monitor and try to make sense of the situation, and while many lessons will eventually be pulled from this experience, there is much to reflect on today.

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