You must be reading these words with one eye as the people of Northern California are keeping the other on the Oroville Dam and the Sacramento Valley. Dark, threatening skies are expected the rest of this week; their ominous portent of more rain has left an estimated 180,000 people vulnerable.
By now you know the winter rains — hailed as an end to years of drought — have filled the dam north of Sacramento. Overfilled, actually. An excess of water cascaded over the never-used spillway last week causing multiple failures in the dam’s control structure and worries about everything that could be in the path of a wall of water to come. Many people are in shelters. Countless others have left their homes in a rush. Everyone is watching that dam today as the rain begins anew.
We have seen this movie before. Remember the day the levees broke in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina? Recently, CityLab reported that there are almost 90,000 dams in the United States and that about 17 percent of them — 14,726 — are classified as “high hazard potential,” meaning that a catastrophic failure would result in loss of human life.
Perhaps this is another wake-up call to the need to upgrade critical infrastructure across the country. Or it could be just another political football fumbled in a seemingly endless political season. (In case you are wondering, at this writing, our president has not tweeted about the crisis in Oroville. Since the evacuation he has, however, tweeted that Mark Cuban isn’t smart enough to be president and that big crowds of supporters followed him in Florida …) California is perhaps not top of mind for federal officials these days.
That isn’t stopping our elected officials from pointing to various crises brought by an abnormally wet winter. Over the weekend, U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, state Sen. Jerry Hill, San Mateo County Supervisor Don Horsley and others toured the Santa Cruz Mountains. They promised help from local, state and federal officials after mudslides, road closures, and tears in the very earth that holds lives together in recent days. These natural disasters have driven people from their homes and made life untenable. As a result, there are various emergency declarations designed to funnel money where it is needed most.