Oroville spillway failure Public Domain
Heavy equipment operators dig access points to the riverbank to allow heavy equipment access to remove the sediment and debris from the diversion pool area just below the damaged spillway at Oroville Dam in Butte County. Photo taken February 17, 2017. Brian Baer/ California Department of Water Resources

California would be an unrecognizable 'parallel universe' without Oroville Dam

While some in this state want to criticize how Oroville Dam was built and the politics of the day, the option of no dam like it on the Feather River is unthinkable to how California has progressed

A Sacramento Bee article questions the “lethal arrogance” of late Gov. Pat Brown when pushing to build Oroville Dam in the 1960s.

The lens of hindsight might be clearer, but it’s only such because we see things through the history that predecessors did not have, nor could they imagine.

The article paints former Gov. Brown – his son is the current governor for those not familiar with California politics – as a pushy politician looking for a legacy. Sound familiar?

Whether he was all that I’m not here to say. What he did, however, was absolutely necessary and visionary for a state that by the time his son became governor for the second time California would have twice the population it did than when Oroville Dam was finished and the last touches on a reservoir named San Luis were being completed.

The non-profit group “Families Protecting the Valley” used its latest newsletter to call Pat Brown and President Kennedy “visionary” for their foresight to dam the Feather River and build an off-stream reservoir in the San Joaquin Valley that would also hold some of that Feather River water for use by farmers in the Central Valley.

Had the pair not done what they did to store water and build conveyance systems to move it hundreds of miles from the Feather River to central and southern California this state would be a parallel universe of its current self, unrecognizable to today’s residents. Who’s to say if governors after Brown would have had the political will to do what he did, had he or Kennedy not done what they did to store and move water in California.

We can criticize the current happenings at Oroville Dam, the costs to rebuild the spillway and the abject failure of the state to properly maintain critical infrastructure, and be totally right in our indignation. California has indeed failed its citizens on so many fronts.

Building Oroville Dam was not one of those failures. Had it not been built you couldn’t live or farm the Sacramento Valley like you do today. Annual floods would make living in and near Sacramento impossible.

The true failures happened after Oroville was built. Not only do these failures include inaction by lawmakers; they include legislative and regulatory action that effectively makes half the water we now collect on an annual basis “verboten” for human consumption or use.

As Families Protecting the Valley writes in its newsletter, the failures of the past 50 years to correct problems at Oroville Dam are far more egregious than the alleged political arm-twisting used to build the dam in just a few years.

How can one have a legitimate conversation with a state that first claims the spillway didn’t collapse, when everyone can see on the news that it did, and then quietly admit that maybe it did happen after all? But let’s not talk about that.

A friend of mine questioned the speed at which state officials worked to remove fingerling salmon from the fish hatchery below Oroville Dam three days ahead of the hastily-called evacuation order of roughly half the Sacramento Valley.

He now says that if ever the California Department of Fish and Wildlife moves that fast to evacuate a hatchery and relocate fish again, it’s time for humans in the area to flee for higher ground.

While we have plenty of issues to consider going forward and decades of failed maintenance to catch up with, complaining about the political arm-twisting that may or may not have happened 50 years ago for a project as necessary as Oroville Dam is a waste of time.

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