William Robert Irvin is president and chief executive of American Rivers.
Rivers are powerful things. They carve canyons, build deltas, shape landscapes, and sometimes overpower the dams and levees we attempt to use to control them, even with the best design and engineering.
The dangerous situation that has developed at California’s Oroville Dam is a stark example of the power of a river. The damage at the nation’s tallest dam, which holds back the Feather River, has prompted the evacuation of nearly 200,000 people, many living behind vulnerable levees in the floodplain below. It is yet another warning that dams and levees are not always the answer, and that it is often more effective to work with nature than against it.
The events unfolding at Oroville should come as no surprise. Conservation organizations raised concerns about the inadequacies of the dam’s spillways as far back as 2005, but the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the state of California failed to act. Nor is the deteriorating condition of Oroville Dam an isolated case. In fact, dams and levees across the United States are falling into dangerous disrepair. According to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials, U.S. dams are degrading far faster than they are being repaired. By 2020, 70 percent of dams in the United States will be more than 50 years old. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s dams a D grade in its 2013 infrastructure report card, while levees earned a D-minus.
Oroville Dam was completed in 1968, built to provide water supply, hydropower generation and flood control. Problems with dams like Oroville and the safety of downstream levees will get worse as our climate changes. Rain events will become more frequent and extreme; the recent rains that filled the reservoir behind Oroville Dam to near bursting were extraordinarily intense. To adapt to this new reality, we need to recognize that the old approach of constricting a river with dams and levees is often not an effective or economical way address to the threat of flooding.
Indeed, to ensure public safety, we need to give rivers more room, not less. We must ensure that rivers have the adjacent floodplains and wetlands they need to move and dissipate floodwaters naturally. Dams and levees limit such options and often incentivize development and redevelopment in places most prone to damaging floods. We not only need to think twice before building dams and levees, we also need to be removing existing dams and levees that have outlived their usefulness and are threatening public safety by aggravating flood risk.
We should avoid encouraging development in vulnerable floodplains and help people and communities move from unsafe, flood-prone areas. Giving rivers more room not only improves public safety, it also provides other benefits, such as clean water, open space and recreation for nearby communities, and habitat for fish and wildlife.
Of course, the immediate priority must be the safety and well-being of those threatened by the problems at Oroville Dam. Public officials need to continue to do everything they can to keep the communities downstream of the dam safe over the next few weeks until the California Department of Water Resources is able to significantly lower the level of the reservoir or until the rainy season is over. Once the current crisis has passed, we need to ensure the highest level of safety and performance at Oroville and facilities like it across the nation.
Longer-term, as the Trump administration and Congress decide how to address crumbling infrastructure, it is critical we make the right investments to ensure our rivers are healthy and our nation’s water infrastructure is safe. The lesson from the events at Oroville Dam is that we must work with nature, not against it.