Jan 12, 2018
While I have not read the full 584 page report, one common theme about the Oroville dam that strikes me as an engineer is the fact that it was built as cheaply as possible. In other words, you get what you pay for. It was low-balled by Pat Brown who obviously mandated DWR to cut as many corners as possible. Putting a new grad in charge of the spillway design is just one of many examples of unreasonable cost cutting. Public works projects should not be built on the cheap as this one obviously was.
Karla Nemeth, the DWR Director appointed yesteday, replacing Grant Davis who had been brought in 7 months is by reputation, a competent PR person and policy wonk and most significantly can be relied upon to guard Natural Resources Agency Director Laird's reputation and advance Brown's Twin Tunnels project.
However, what is needed is someone who will get an actual emergency spillway built this summer. One that is lined all the way to the river and anchored to solid rock. The water contractors would most likely prefer not to have to pay for it, although they are obligated to do so when it is built. I am not so sure that Ms Nemeth is up to the task of getting that built this summer. In fact she may be their in part to insure that it won't be built.
The current Orovile debacle didn't occur because of an extreme weather event; flows were well within stated design capacity when the spillways failed.
However, sometime in the future there will be an extreme weather event, a long warm rain on top of a heavy snow pack, and when that event occurs inflows into the lake will most likely exceed the design capacity of the rebuilt main spillway, and a real rather than fake emergency spillway will be needed for the excess.
The problems with the construction and maintenance of the Oroville dam did have a little to do with hubris, but a lot more to do with a common problem among bureaucraciesthe creation and tending of an obviously false, standard fictional version of reality.
The myth that the emergency spillway was usable was clearly and obviously a myth, but woe to any within DWR who would challenge that myth since doing so would imply a very large expenditure paid for by the influential Water Contractors to build an emergency spillway that was actually usable.
In principle, the DWR myth about the emergency spillway is similar to the myth so vigorously maintained by university instructors when teaching future teachers that children shouldn't be taught to sound out words when learning to read even though the exact opposite is true. Of course without the use of phonics (sounding out words) learning to read becomes much, much more difficult requiring more professionally trained teachers, and producing many students with inadequate reading skills which justifies many many remedial programs taught by specialized professional teachers which remedial programs are easy to obtain funding for since reading is such a critical skill.