California’s drought crisis has been a hot-button issue as the state has had to make major adjustments over the last few years to compensate for the extreme water shortage. Even now, after more than five years of drought and following above-average precipitation and snowpack so far for 2017, experts are still unsure if the historic drought is really over. While the drought has occupied a large share of the media’s attention, there is another issue that emerged recently in California that could spell major trouble for the state if it’s not properly attended to: the tallest dam in the country, the Oroville Dam, is in danger of total collapse following a partial collapse of one of the dam’s main off-ramp for high water.
The collapse highlights America’s growing infrastructure problem, as well as further evidence of global climate change. As California recovers from drought, potentially reaching the end of a five-year dry spell thanks to its current snowpack being at 177 percent of what is considered normal for this time of year, the opposite problem (flooding) is triggered as a result.
Droughts ending in flood are not uncommon in California, according to UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain, because that’s usually what it takes for conditions to return to normal. However, while the state has received more than its average share of snowpack so far this year, the real concern is increased rainfall, according to information collected by research hydrologist Michael Dettinger. Increased snowfall is not an immediate problem because it accumulates on mountaintops until it gradually melts in the spring. Rain, however, pours into artificial reservoirs (such as Lake Oroville) all at once.
California has been hit hard with storms this year, with 10 atmospheric river storms already in 2017, which is putting pressure on the Oroville Dam and raising concern about its structural integrity following the partial collapse. The increased rainfall in California this year can be blamed, in part, on global climate change, since warmer air contains more moisture, causing more storms. However, researchers say the the more subtle signs of global warming are obscured by California’s variable weather patterns.
Bloomberg likens the partial collapse of the dam to the start of a disaster movie which ends in all-out catastrophe, and indeed that would not be an inaccurate comparison if the dam were to give out entirely. As a precautionary measure, nearly 200,000 people living downstream were evacuated from their homes and dam operators and construction workers have been working around the clock to prepare the dam for more rainfall, draining water from the lake, building up the emergency spillway with 1,200 tons of boulders, and monitoring the area with drone footage.
While drought followed by flooding, heightened by global climate change, was the immediate cause of the dam collapse, it also points to the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. According to Scott Myers-Lipton, a San Jose State University sociology professor and author of Rebuild America: Solving the Economic Crisis Through Civic Works, “The Oroville Dam catastrophe is due to the fact that we in the United States have taken our eyes off of infrastructure.”
Many of the nation’s dams, roads, and bridges were built upwards of 50 years ago in an era when climate patterns were much different than they are today. Aging infrastructure is a major source of concern in America currently, with the Trump administration citing the infrastructure problem as one of their top priorities. So not only are many of America’s vital manmade structures wearing down, but they’re also obsolete because they were not built to accommodate our current weather patterns. Climate change exacerbates failing infrastructure, “making a tough job even tougher,” says Bloomberg. One can only hope that the Trump administration follows through with their infrastructure plans.