That is a dam big (spillway) hole
February 12, 2017 8:39 PM   Subscribe

The Oroville Dam is the tallest in the United States, located about 1 hour north of Sacramento, California. With recent rains, the reservoir behind the dam is full. California Department of Water Resources (DWR) opened the spillway, which releases water from the dam, but a crater formed in it so DWR opened the emergency spillway (for the first time ever) in an attempt to take the pressure off the main spillway. But now the emergency spillway is eroding at an alarming rate, and the risk of it failing is high. Evacuations of more than 160,000 people have been ordered. posted by OrangeDisk (163 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
 
I've had an eye on this for a while now. It's sort of horrifying, really. A major infrastructure project is failing right before our eyes, and we don't have any real solution for it.
posted by hippybear at 8:46 PM on February 12, 2017 [4 favorites]


Lake Oroville water levels have fallen to 901 feet, the level at which water flows over the emergency spillway, state figures from 8 p.m. show.

That means little or no water is likely coming over the emergency spillway – and the threat of collapse due to erosion has diminished said Joe Countryman, a member of the Central Valley Flood Protection Board and a former engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Water coming over the top of the emergency spillway is likely the main factor in its erosion, Department of Water Resources spokesman Chris Orrock said Sunday night.

Now, officials should be able to start assessing damage to the emergency spillway as it begins to dry. “They are going to dry out the emergency spillway area,” Countryman said. “They are going to start the repair work.”

This does not mean that the risk of catastrophic flooding has passed. Officials released water so quickly over the damaged main spillway that they may have further threatened its integrity, Countryman said.

A large section of concrete at the bottom of the spillway had already collapsed by Sunday, the initial cause of the emergency. As more of the main spillway collapses, it could threaten the spillway’s gates and force officials to stop releasing water into the main spillway, Countryman said. That would likely be catastrophic.

Orrock said Sunday night he did not know how much further damage was done to the main spillway by releasing water so quickly.

“I’m sure it’s going to be severe,” he said.

posted by My Dad at 8:49 PM on February 12, 2017 [6 favorites]


Here's some visual aids courtesy Buzzfeed. There's also a link in there to a local TV news live feed but that's done now.
posted by scalefree at 8:52 PM on February 12, 2017 [5 favorites]


I can't find the article right now because my browsing history is failing me but the article I read first about the spillway crater said something about it was going to continue to erode until it hit bedrock. That didn't sound promising.
posted by hippybear at 8:52 PM on February 12, 2017


By way of comparison, the Oroville Dam is 770 feet tall. The Goldeneye (Contra) Dam is 720 feet tall. The Contra Dam is an arch dam, while the Oroville Dam is an embankment dam, so the dramatic vertical drop isn't present in the Oroville Dam.
posted by b1tr0t at 8:54 PM on February 12, 2017 [1 favorite]


There's also more rain on the way.. four storms worth.
posted by ApathyGirl at 8:56 PM on February 12, 2017


This is such terrifying situation for the folks living below this dam. I hope the spillways hold and that there's a chance to repair them before the next storm.
posted by tobascodagama at 8:58 PM on February 12, 2017


This is only further evidence for my theory that Reality really did end on Dec 21, 2012 and was immediately replaced by Hollywood Screenwriter Reality.
posted by hippybear at 8:58 PM on February 12, 2017 [28 favorites]


Devonian Fossil Gorge, created by overflow eroding bedrock at the Coralville, Iowa dam.
posted by one weird trick at 9:00 PM on February 12, 2017 [10 favorites]


Wow, the face of the dam is deceptively sloped, but look at the size of that lake, there's a small city's worth of houseboats floating one just one bay. If it goes catastrophically it'll, well I can't even begin. Just wow.
posted by sammyo at 9:02 PM on February 12, 2017 [2 favorites]


Mosul Dam - no evacuations gonna happen there.
posted by unliteral at 9:03 PM on February 12, 2017 [11 favorites]




I can't find the article right now because my browsing history is failing me but the article I read first about the spillway crater said something about it was going to continue to erode until it hit bedrock. That didn't sound promising.
From the daytime photos, it appears that the crater in the main spillway is 1/3 to half way down it's length. It isn't clear to me where the damage to the emergency spillway is (if any?). I think DWR's strategy is to run as much water as possible through the main spillway to reduce pressure on the emergency spillway, while carefully monitoring the erosion of the crater. At the police periscope stream an hour or so ago, there were reports that erosion was happening more slowly than expected, so that's temporarily good news. Now that it's dark in the Pacific Zone, monitoring will be more difficult and dangerous.
posted by b1tr0t at 9:05 PM on February 12, 2017


The best book I've read in maybe the last five years is The Emerald Mile, a book about the sequence of events that occurred in 1983, when the Glen Canyon Dam faced a frighteningly similar situation to the one now faced by the Oroville Dam.

These videos show some footage of the dam & downstream situation in 1983: Emerald Mile Youtube Trailer, Jeffe Aronson video compilation part 1, part 2.
posted by flug at 9:07 PM on February 12, 2017 [9 favorites]


To clarify, the failure risk is of the emergency spillway, not the dam itself.
posted by ApathyGirl at 9:07 PM on February 12, 2017 [6 favorites]


Reddit Megathread for Oroville Dam Spillway

Lots of updates and important information being shared there.
posted by Fizz at 9:13 PM on February 12, 2017 [6 favorites]


I have two work friends who have had to evacuate. I'm having to cover an event tomorrow for one of them, because she didn't know where they'd land -- the highways are backed up and the hotels are filling up.

I'm down-river, but not on the river. I am, however, just a few miles from the current water level of the Yolo Bypass. If the spillway fails, and if tons of water/debris are sent down Sacramento way, the Sacramento and Fremont weirs will likely be opened 100% to save Sacramento, which means that my town (and my house) are potentially at risk.

It's hard to know what to expect. The newscasters are in a total tizzy -- but it's not the excited kind, it's the oh-shit kind. The Department of Water Resources was supposed to have another press conference 10 minutes ago, but it's been pushed back to 10pm.

Oh, and yes, the damage is to the emergency spillway, because the primary spillway was damaged earlier this week from erosion. But if the emergency spillway goes, an untold amount of water will cascade into the Feather River (which runs next to the Sacramento airport and eventually meets the Sacramento River), along with tons of debris (because the emergency spillway is just an overgrown hillside). What that water and debris will do downstream is impossible to predict. There is also the possibility of underseepage from under the emergency spillway. No one knows what the underwater lake side of the emergency spillway looks like. There could be invisible underwater damage as well, which would contribute to catastrophic failure of the spillway.

Also, a bunch more storms are due in beginning on Thursday.

Yay for drought relief in an era of climate change!
posted by mudpuppie at 9:15 PM on February 12, 2017 [22 favorites]


To clarify, the failure risk is of the emergency spillway, not the dam itself.
Nicholas Sitar, the Edward G. Cahill and John R. Cahill Professor of Civil Engineering at UC Berkeley, said losing 30 feet from the top of the emergency spillway could be catastrophic.

“You look at 30 feet times the area of the reservoir,” he said. “That is how much water is going to come out. That is a huge volume of water.”
posted by Ogre Lawless at 9:17 PM on February 12, 2017 [6 favorites]


Things are so fucked they are calculating how much damage they can do to the concrete spillway before it's ruined and worthless in the next several days to make enough room in the lake to accommodate the incoming rainfall. Already there have been some costs downstream -- the state's biggest salmon hatchery is on the Feather River, and the silt us not good for them. Hatchery officials were able to move about 5 million fish to safety, but had to leave another 4 million behind, along with with filters to clean up the murky water. Pray for no more rain.
posted by notyou at 9:18 PM on February 12, 2017 [4 favorites]


Also, out of an over-abundance of caution, I got out my cat carriers and put them next to the front door with their doors open. A few weeks ago the cats went to the vet and acted like the carriers were torture cells. Tonight they're like "OH YAY NEW BOXES."
posted by mudpuppie at 9:29 PM on February 12, 2017 [49 favorites]


DWR opened the emergency spillway (for the first time ever)

You don't open the emergency spillway. The emergency spillway is a permanent fixture, a concrete lip that is slightly lower than the rest of the earthen dam. If the water is allowed to rise to the level of this emergency spillway lip, the water runs out. No operator intervention required and there is no way to stop it except releasing more water from the primary spillway to lower the lake level.

The emergency spillway is a concrete lip that is resistant to erosion and lets water out to prevent water from over-topping the main earthen dam which is not resistant to erosion. If that over-topping were to happen, the entire dam would be eroded and breached in a matter of minutes.
posted by JackFlash at 9:32 PM on February 12, 2017 [33 favorites]


I think it looks like I was trying to say that this isn't scary as hell and catastrophic - that's not at all my intent. I have immediate family downriver of the dam in the evacuation zone.. downplaying the danger couldn't be further from my mind.
posted by ApathyGirl at 9:36 PM on February 12, 2017 [2 favorites]


The saddest part about trying to follow news of this on Twitter is the hashtag is full of people gleefully waiting for the dam to rupture and kill all the Californians living below. It's wretched.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 9:38 PM on February 12, 2017 [19 favorites]


The saddest part about trying to follow news of this on Twitter is the hashtag is full of people gleefully waiting for the dam to rupture and kill all the Californians living below. It's wretched.

Yeah, I gave up because
  • The devil is finally punishing California
  • Jerry Brown you are corrupt California is a corrupt liberal wastehole
  • Muslims did this
  • MAGA
Not kidding.
posted by mudpuppie at 9:42 PM on February 12, 2017 [25 favorites]


They have until Thursday to make an emergency fix. If it can be done, they'll do it, they have no shortage of expertise or equipment. I'd still be concerned if I lived anywhere between Oroville and the Bypass tbh, just because if they need to do a huge release a levee is going to pop somewhere most likely.

The part that is the most worrying in some ways is that a big sinkhole opened up like that unexpectedly. It's been dry for so long that the ground deforms in unexpected ways. Still, if they say the dam is sound I'm sure they've done everything they can to test that.
posted by fshgrl at 9:50 PM on February 12, 2017


Oh and mudpupie, you missed the guy pushing his theory that communists in the CA state government blew it up with 2,000lbs of heavy duty explosives I see.

All the people gloating are absolutely disgusting. And very stupid. Infrastructure all over the country is old and undersized for climate change and this is going to start happening more and more. They nearly lost the Old River Structure in the late 70s, it'll go some day. At least CA has had the sense to keep it's bypasses clear of development.
posted by fshgrl at 9:53 PM on February 12, 2017 [22 favorites]


Butte County is one of the poorest in California. The Californians like my family who live there don't make much money, or are retired from K-Mart, teaching or working for the county. These are not snooty liberals, they're as hard-scrabble as any midwesterner. I live for cheap snark, but these are not the Californians you're looking to mock.
posted by bigbigdog at 9:53 PM on February 12, 2017 [43 favorites]


(Not directed at anybody here)
posted by bigbigdog at 9:54 PM on February 12, 2017 [5 favorites]


It isn't the use of the emergency spillway that caused the evacuations. That has been going on for a day and a half now. The problem is that one edge of the concrete at the top of the emergency spillway is (was now, actually) eroding quickly enough that the engineers considered there to be a significant risk of the upper part of it to be scoured away, which would have opened a path to drain 20-30 feet of the lake in short order.

That is far less bad than a total dam collapse, which isn't really in the cards except in the most extreme scenario but could still cause catastrophic flash flooding downstream. Normally when the emergency spillway level is reached, outflow simply equals inflow, so it isn't a huge issue. A collapse would allow 10-20 times the rate of outflow earlier today.
posted by wierdo at 9:55 PM on February 12, 2017 [4 favorites]


DWR is supposed to be holding a press conference at 10pm Pacific, which will supposedly be streamed here.
posted by zachlipton at 9:58 PM on February 12, 2017 [1 favorite]


Water's motto is "No, really; coming through."

It's one drop at a time and patient, or what we're seeing now.

But water's kung-fu is best. Everything else is delaying tactics.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 9:59 PM on February 12, 2017 [21 favorites]


The devil is finally punishing California

Wouldn't the devil be giving them solid gold surfboards or something?
posted by thelonius at 10:03 PM on February 12, 2017 [7 favorites]


a total dam collapse, which isn't really in the cards

Hmmm. It's only February and it's going to keep raining. They will need to move water past the dam. The emergency spillway is only designed to be a temporary measure in use for a short time, it's really just a reinforced low spot and it's not held up well to a few hours of use. So they will need to use the regular spillway. If they keep sending water down the regular spillway erosion will continue. It's eventually going to headcut back up to the control structure at the top of the regular spillway and undermine it. The control spot is already the lowest place in the bowl so continued erosion there could release a lot of water and cut a V shaped notch that rapidly expands, in theory. My understanding is that the control structure on this particular dam sits on a bedrock ridge so the erosion cannot propagate sideways into the earthen part with no bedrock. But they obviously have seepage and piping issues that are not in hand (as evidenced by the initial sinkhole) and I have no idea what kind of rock it's on. It's going to be a pretty nerve-wracking few months here is what I'm saying. Also we really need to spend more money on maintaining infrastructure.
posted by fshgrl at 10:32 PM on February 12, 2017 [7 favorites]


Butte County is one of the poorest in California. The Californians like my family who live there don't make much money, or are retired from K-Mart, teaching or working for the county.

In one of the Sacramento Bee stories linked above, they interview a retired forklift driver and an unemployed paralegal.
posted by My Dad at 10:36 PM on February 12, 2017 [2 favorites]


Oh we definitely need to get serious about the maintenance of public works of all sorts in this country. You get no disagreement from me there.

I'm just saying that based on the way the dam is designed even an uncontrolled failure of the emergency spillway won't (likely) propagate to the rest of the structure and cause a total collapse. There's a lot of concrete between it and the dam itself. It would be a major catastrophe, but not the complete disaster a 100 foot wall of water a total collapse would be.

That said, my knowledge is fairly limited. I've only been aware of the potential for trouble for a couple of days now, after all. Definitely listen to the actual engineers!
posted by wierdo at 10:41 PM on February 12, 2017 [1 favorite]


From the press conference, the water is currently below the emergency spillway level. The plan is to run 100,000 CFS of water over the damaged main spillway to the extent they're able to do so, with an intent to drop the water level 50' over the next few days, as another storm is expected later this week. This will reduce pressure on the emergency spillway and provide capacity for the storm (plus all the runoff that's expected come Spring), though it's putting more water over the massive hole in the main spillway.
posted by zachlipton at 10:48 PM on February 12, 2017


I remember when I was a kid in The Valley, the 1971 San Fernando Earthquake severely damaged the Van Norman Dam and 80,000 people were evacuated in case there was a total breach. Thankfully there wasn't, but even where I lived, several miles south of the evacuation area, would have had six-to-nine inches of water flowing down the residential streets. It was moderately scary.
posted by oneswellfoop at 11:16 PM on February 12, 2017 [5 favorites]


it's really just a reinforced low spot and it's not held up well to a few hours of use.

Well, I guess my question - and maybe this isn't the right time - is, why can the auxiliary spillway not handle a bunch of water being dumped over it? Isn't that what it's for, even if it's not the primary method? (DWR refuses to call it an 'emergency' spillway, preferring the word 'auxiliary')

I don't expect to need to use the fire extinguishers in my building, either. But when I do, I expect them to work without breaking.
posted by ctmf at 11:18 PM on February 12, 2017 [2 favorites]


Have you tested any of them recently? Just asking...
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:22 PM on February 12, 2017 [24 favorites]


I hope this won't affect Death Grips potentially making a new album.
posted by steeringwheel at 11:23 PM on February 12, 2017 [1 favorite]


[A couple deleted. Lets focus on this news directly and not make this into another Trump/politics thread, please. Likewise, let's avoid amplifying what the worst of the worst out there are saying.]
posted by taz (staff) at 11:25 PM on February 12, 2017 [21 favorites]


My understanding of the emergency spillway is it's not so much a danger of the concrete berm eroding as much as the erosion undercutting it. Though I suppose you get about the same result either way.

Over in Wisconsin, Lake Delton drained a few years back when the embankment around the dam there failed. Lake Delton is very different than Lake Oroville reservoir, but it's a reminder that the whole basin is needed to hold the lake.

I also saw something about the power generation at Oroville dam being shut down due to the all of the debris in the basin, so they can't release any water through that. It'd just be a trickle compared to a properly-operating spillway, but not being able to use it certainly doesn't help.
posted by ckape at 11:29 PM on February 12, 2017


Have you tested any of them recently? Just asking...

Monthly. That's at work; at home not so much, i admit, because I don't have a recharge contract.
posted by ctmf at 11:37 PM on February 12, 2017 [3 favorites]


My understanding of the emergency spillway is it's not so much a danger of the concrete berm eroding as much as the erosion undercutting it.

No, there's a hole in it. They are talking about using super sacs I think (huge bags of rock hauled in via helicopter) to plug it up. And I'd assume they'll be grouting like crazy too to try to plug any seeps.
posted by fshgrl at 11:40 PM on February 12, 2017


I hesitate to post this because of the way the situation has been politicised in ugly ways, but it’s an intriguing piece of background information and the crisis isn’t going to end any time soon.

San Jose Mercury: Oroville Dam: Feds and state officials ignored warnings 12 years ago

Three environmental groups — the Friends of the River, the Sierra Club and the South Yuba Citizens League — filed a motion with the federal government on Oct. 17, 2005, as part of Oroville Dam’s relicensing process, urging federal officials to require that the dam’s emergency spillway be armored with concrete, rather than remain as an earthen hillside.
posted by Fongotskilernie at 12:50 AM on February 13, 2017 [30 favorites]


Thanks for this thread. Fingers crossed for my fellow Californians up north and those working on the dam.
posted by persona au gratin at 1:30 AM on February 13, 2017 [1 favorite]


Eh, that's CA for you. Partisan comments from other states have nothing on what Californians will say and do to each other over water. Heads will roll over this, editorials will be written etc etc. But the truth is the whole state needs those dams, CA government is byzantine and full of back room deals and nothing will change.
posted by fshgrl at 1:30 AM on February 13, 2017 [4 favorites]


Or in other words, "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."
posted by mosk at 2:27 AM on February 13, 2017 [29 favorites]


What a terrible year for California ecologically (which of course includes people). Fingers crossed that the rainy season spaces itself out just so.

But dear deity do we ever need more attention paid to infrastructure and the environment. Friends and people in my extended family work in civil engineering and the forestry service, and it freaking scares me that in spite of all the smart, hard-working people doing their damndest to get the word out, our infrastructure is still crumbling. The giant with feet of clay.
posted by fraula at 2:48 AM on February 13, 2017 [5 favorites]


It's interesting that just tonight I and some friends were considering the issue of God "judging" California (presumably for its liberal tendencies, or something? I dunno.) In any case, as the speaker of the evening explicitly pointed out, and as should be clear from any sort of coherent theological perspective, that is nonsense.

Which is to say that from one of the conservative Christians on Metafilter, don't let people get away with spouting crap about God using a catastrophe to punish some state or whatever. You have my permission to kick said people in the genitals.

Stay safe everyone.
posted by iffthen at 4:24 AM on February 13, 2017 [15 favorites]


They nearly lost the Old River Structure in the late 70s, it'll go some day.

This is what fshgrl is referring to, in case anyone was wondering. Major hydro engineering projects have really scary failure modes.
posted by TedW at 5:20 AM on February 13, 2017 [3 favorites]


The saddest part about trying to follow news of this on Twitter is the hashtag is full of people gleefully waiting for the dam to rupture and kill all the Californians living below. It's wretched.

The Central Valley is one of two MAGA areas in California (the other being Orange County). If anyone wants to ascribe anything religious it looks more like "did you fuckers even listen to what my son said?"
posted by Talez at 5:30 AM on February 13, 2017 [26 favorites]


This is awful. It's also meta-awful because at this point you don't even have to read the article, as they now all read the same. Massive infrastructure investment from generations ago, not maintained, not updated, warnings ignored, now failing, threatening X thousand people and requiring heroic, desperate repair attempts.

The people and politicians of the US have been living high off the sacrifices and investments of their parents and grandparents for over a generation, to the point of it being completely normalized. I'm 40 years old and I'm having a hard time remembering a single example of a politician, in my lifetime, being rewarded for planning for the future like a grown-up.
posted by range at 5:44 AM on February 13, 2017 [47 favorites]


I was trying to follow last night on Twitter, but found the Reddit thread to be the most informative. It's so scary, like something out of a movie- using a helicopter and bags of rocks to fill in the breach? I'm sure Mark Wahlberg is already working on the screenplay. Hoping they can stabilize ASAP so everyone can go home.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 5:53 AM on February 13, 2017


Can you imagine what a boon it would be to the USA in so many ways if we diverted some money into hiring people at a living wage to repair our dams, bridges, and levees? It would save money in the long run as we'd head off some of the massive damage caused in a catastrophic failure, improve our real employment numbers, get money circulating into some of our most depressed areas, and... won't happen.
posted by Karmakaze at 5:59 AM on February 13, 2017 [50 favorites]


As soon as it's light out (in a few minutes) they'll start dropping the bags of rocks into the holes in the permanent concrete spillway via helicopter. This should stabilize the spillway enough so that they can send more water down there and relieve some pressure.
posted by fixedgear at 6:00 AM on February 13, 2017 [1 favorite]


Was this definitely attributable to poor maintenance? The guy they were interviewing on NPR seemed to be of the opinion that it was a design problem that was only just now revealing itself because this was the first time the water level had been this high.
posted by saladin at 6:01 AM on February 13, 2017 [1 favorite]


The Strong Towns thesis is that, unfortunately, the massive infrastructure investment of their parents and grandparents saddled many parts of the US with running costs that they are completely unable to maintain because the local economy isn’t productive enough to support them. In some cases, this is simply down to a refusal to pay slightly higher taxes, but the Strong Towns blog made a strong case that there are big chunks of the US where the running costs of this infrastructure are completely unaffordable. Which means, in turn, that these areas are going to just keep struggling on until the infrastructure breaks beyond economic repair & then it’s just going to be gone, absent another Marshall Plan style expenditure by central government.

Whether central California fits into that pattern is another question entirely of course.

*To head off the obvious rejoinder: the Strong Towns thesis is absolutely not an "f. the poor" one - on the contrary their calculations suggest that the poorer areas of cities often more than pay their way economically & subsidise other areas through their taxes.)

$8000 a year in unpaid maintenance expenses per household per year was the quote for one town they looked at IIRC.
posted by pharm at 6:02 AM on February 13, 2017 [14 favorites]


Here's an overlay of the evacuation area over which way counties went during the election. (Twitter link)
posted by Sophie1 at 6:57 AM on February 13, 2017 [3 favorites]


Considering Lake Oroville water is used for irrigation by one of the most productive agricultural areas in the world and a source of drinking water for 23 million Californians, I'm going to guess the Strowng Towns hypothesis probably is not the case here.

The Strong Towns crew makes good points now and then, but they're also guilty of ignoring things that contradict their (conservative) worldview and indulging in the worst kind of "TURNS OUT" clickbait as well as being contradictory for the sake of being contradictory ("don't use the words 'density' or 'new urbanists'.").
posted by entropicamericana at 6:58 AM on February 13, 2017 [13 favorites]


Rachel Maddow did a nice segment on the dam situation last week.
posted by AGameOfMoans at 7:01 AM on February 13, 2017


saladin: They were warned of this exact failure mode twelve years ago. So in this case, perhaps not direct maintenance (in the sense of repairing damage) so much as an unwillingness to spend (and raise) money to bring the dam up to standard (which I would categorize as maintenance also, just of a different sort).
posted by range at 7:15 AM on February 13, 2017 [4 favorites]


Here's waterflow data for Oroville dam. The plots are probably most interesting, particularly the lake level. I believe 901 feet is the magic number, the top of the emergency spillway. Also the outflow graph shows their decision to increase the main spillway to 100,000 cfs despite the risk.

There's also a live webcam at the lake. But it's above the lake so all you see is a calm flat surface of water held in check by the dam.

There's a lot more rain coming this week. That link is for Quincy, CA; what matters is the precip up in the mountains east and north of Oroville.
posted by Nelson at 7:18 AM on February 13, 2017 [1 favorite]


Also, lest I come across as too black-and-white here, I think the point is that we've done a spectacularly bad job of planning for the future while chasing short-term gains. Some expensive-to-maintain infrastructure may indeed only serve a tiny social good, in which case it may not have been a great purchase to begin with and we should re-evaluate it. But you also can't take the cost of maintaining a dam that services a gazillion acres of agriculture and amortize its cost only over the county it happens to sit in.
posted by range at 7:20 AM on February 13, 2017 [13 favorites]


The situation around Sacramento has to be getting a little precarious too since I'm pretty sure the Feather River is a tributary of the Sacramento River. Unless I'm mistaken the levees that protect Sacramento from flooding have been in bad shape for maybe 30 years now.
posted by Conrad-Casserole at 7:22 AM on February 13, 2017 [2 favorites]


...then it’s just going to be gone, absent another Marshall Plan style expenditure by central government.

I do not think giving billions of dollars to foreign countries would do very much to repair US infrastructure. And the local economies may be "unproductive" partly because money is not being spent on infrastructure, which spending would help support said economy.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:30 AM on February 13, 2017 [1 favorite]


Well, I guess my question - and maybe this isn't the right time - is, why can the auxiliary spillway not handle a bunch of water being dumped over it?

It is an earthen dam. This means you can't just dump water over the top without it eroding. The main spillway is a continuous concrete trough going all the way from the top of the dam to the river at the base. The main spillway is designed to carry the water without eroding the dam.

The emergency spillway is just a concrete lip at the top of the dam. It prevents water that goes over it from eroding the top of the dam, but it doesn't have a concrete trough going all the way down to the base of the dam. So water going over the emergency spillway just spreads out over the packed earth and can erode it away.

They make the emergency spillway very wide -- a hundred feet or more so that an inch or two of water flows over this widely spread out area behind the dam. This is okay for a one or two day emergency from one storm, but if this flow continues for days or weeks because of a series of storms, then the spread out water flow will begin to erode little gullies and the little gullies will coalesce into bigger valleys and eventually you have a big river running down the back side of the dam which could cause it to erode through and fail.

So that's the difference between the main spillway and the emergency spillway. The main spillway is concrete lined all the way and designed to carry a flow indefinitely. The emergency spillway only has a lip of concrete at the top and is designed for only a short term emergency flow.
posted by JackFlash at 7:30 AM on February 13, 2017 [22 favorites]


range, asked and answered, thanks!
posted by saladin at 7:34 AM on February 13, 2017


Reminder that Chuck Mahrone has repeatedly spoken out about the unsustainable finances of infrastructure spending and the phrase "military spending" appears on strongtowns.org exactly three times, which is a lot like fixing the concrete on the surface of a spillway while the water is undercutting it from below.
(see how i brought that full circle)
posted by entropicamericana at 7:50 AM on February 13, 2017 [10 favorites]


bring back WPA, CCC...
posted by j_curiouser at 7:56 AM on February 13, 2017 [9 favorites]


Reminder that Chuck Mahrone has repeatedly spoken out about the unsustainable finances of infrastructure spending and the phrase "military spending" appears on strongtowns.org exactly three times

Strong Towns mostly focuses on local(ized) infrastructure, which isn't funded federally.

In fact (as he's pointed out repeatedly), drawing on federal funding often requires projects to be built on much larger scales than before -- eg, expanding the lanes of a two-lane country road to meet highway standards.

In theory, this dam should have more than enough funding -- the entire city of Sacramento apparently depends on it! But water in the West IS vastly over engineered (see Cadillac Desert), which makes it way harder to maintain, and if this is being funded locally, there's no way they have the money to maintain it.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 8:00 AM on February 13, 2017


bring back WPA, CCC...

For big infrastructure, you would want to increase funding to historic levels for the Army Corps of Engineers, the highway administration, and other relics of the middle twentieth century. The CCC and WPA built great things (including lots of infrastructure) but the big projects were done on a different model.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:02 AM on February 13, 2017 [3 favorites]


The main spillway is concrete lined all the way and designed to carry a flow indefinitely.

But isn't that the one with the huge sinkhole?
posted by sammyo at 8:21 AM on February 13, 2017


But isn't that the one with the huge sinkhole?

Yes indeedy. My understanding is that they are now playing erosion of the emergency spillway against further erosion of the sinkhole in the main spillway. The only control they have (as I understand it, anyway) is allowing water over the main spillway (which is controllable) to keep the level below the emergency spillway (which is passive and purely level-based). Losing either would be catastrophic.

In an earthen dam, once erosion has started it's almost always a runaway failure. You can see a decent progression of images about halfway down the Teton Dam wikipedia page. The Teton Dam failed by a different mechanism but is a good example of a reservoir undercutting a sloped earthen dam.
posted by range at 8:28 AM on February 13, 2017 [3 favorites]


if this is being funded locally, there's no way they have the money to maintain it.


The very lowest level the Oroville Dam would be funded at is the state, I'm pretty sure. It's not subject to local politics and local funding, which doesn't mean funding availability didn't play a job in decisions regarding maintenance.

ISTR I know an engineer who works at Oroville. Hope he's doing okay...
posted by suelac at 8:30 AM on February 13, 2017


The main spillway is concrete lined all the way and designed to carry a flow indefinitely.

But isn't that the one with the huge sinkhole?


Yes, but that is an unintended failure of the concrete spillway trough. This isn't an unheard of failure. A similar event almost took out the Glen Canyon dam on the Colorado in 1983.

In a big flood event the enormous speed and volume of water can do catastrophic damage to concrete. Hydraulic cavitation can attack any tiny imperfection in the concrete surface like a jackhammer. Think of the bumps in the expansion joints on the freeway. A slight settling of one of the concrete panels by a fraction of an inch in the spillway provides an avenue for attack by cavitation. Once the erosion of the concrete begins, it expands as huge chunks of concrete are broken off and thrown a hundred feet into the air.

Extreme events can cause extreme consequences that may or may not have been predictable.
posted by JackFlash at 8:40 AM on February 13, 2017 [9 favorites]



The Strong Towns crew makes good points now and then, but they're also guilty of ignoring things that contradict their (conservative) worldview and indulging in the worst kind of "TURNS OUT" clickbait as well as being contradictory for the sake of being contradictory ("don't use the words 'density' or 'new urbanists'.").


I think that's a grossly unfair characterization of Strong Towns, especially given that the context we're talking about, mega-infrastructure projects like dams, is one that Strong Towns doesn't look at. At all.

ST's analyses pertain to last-mile stuff, like the delivery pipes, drains, paved streets, et cetera.

What's happening with Oroville is the result of a political system that encourages giving politicians the pretext to cut ribbons and preen in front of cameras. If we had a system that puts introverts in charge, the likes of Michael Dukakis, it would result in maintenance being prioritized over new construction, and (except if this thing turning out to be a design issue) incidents like this not happening as often.
posted by ocschwar at 8:41 AM on February 13, 2017 [6 favorites]


A few misconceptions: Oroville Dam is one of the key linchpin dams in the water project, There is no issue funding it except political / water board will to do so. It provides flows to LA and the big Central Valley project and it prevents salination of the Delta. So, everything basically. It's rank stupidity that this has heppened and I imagine a long chain of leaked maintenance requests denied will be forthcoming.

There were two erosion incidents (failures, I guess). One was the initial damage to the main concrete spillway which absolutely is a maintenance issue. Then the emergency spillway was damaged, which was a design issue, specifically the issue that was the subject of the petition to FERC.

The main and auxiliary spillways are not located in the earthen dam proper but on a rocky hill seperated from the dam proper by a ridge of bedrock. SOS the fear right now is not losing the dam itself as much as losing the earthern top of that bridge or the control structure.

This isn't close to the biggest flow. The main spillway failed at I believe 50-70,000 cfs. In 1997 they sent far, far more water down the main spillway for a long period, 160,000cfs. Slightly more than the downstream levees were rated for as I recall.

The other unmaintained part of the system is the downstream levees themselves. They are in poor shape. For decades, there have even dire warnings about the levee system.

The CA legislature hasn't been able to find its ass with both hands since the mid 80s or so. I have no idea how the state keeps running, tbh. It may be the fifth biggest economy in the world etc but its run by 5 year olds.
posted by fshgrl at 8:47 AM on February 13, 2017 [14 favorites]


The Central Valley is one of two MAGA areas in California

Clinton actually won Orange County this year if I'm not mistaken - and not every part of the Valley goes red it's a big region. But Trump did win Butte County, and the whole northeastern corner of the state, so the point stands.
posted by atoxyl at 8:52 AM on February 13, 2017


Unless I'm mistaken the levees that protect Sacramento from flooding have been in bad shape for maybe 30 years now.

I did flood control reporting for a local paper about 10 years ago, so my knowledge is out of date (plus it's been dry, so flooding hasn't been talked about much). They have put a lot of work into the levees and have shored a lot of them up. But underseepage was still an issue with many of them 10 years ago. Also gophers.

Here's what I don't understand: They're dropping a bunch of crushed rock into the eroded portion of the auxiliary spillway to fill the hole. Good. I haven't seen any reports yet describing the damage from a daylight perspective. But the fact remains that behind that wall of earth, there is a shit-ton of water exerting pressure on the hillside. It's weakened at least somewhat, and there may be unseen seepage from the lake side. And then when the rain comes again Wednesday night/Thursday, even with the crevasse plugged with crushed rock, the rock will be permeable, and further erosion could occur. It's the best they can do in a couple of days, but is it really going to fix the problem? I can't quite wrap my head around it, and I'm not feeling very comfortable about it.

The mayor of Sacramento has said that there's no imminent risk to the city. That's because they release the water to the west when the Sacramento river gets too high. The bypass is already flooded -- they opened the gates up again last week. First time ever they've opened them twice in one year. But here's the thing: The levees upstream of Sacramento are built to withstand something like 150,000 cfs, and they've passed that test a few times. But that test has come from river flooding, not a whole damn lake emptying. And if the hillside does collapse and the reservoir starts to drain, a whole hell of a lot of debris is going to slide down into the Feather River and, presumably, wash downstream. At any point along the way, an impromptu dam could form, and the water could overtop or break through a levee in an unexpected place or places, and those places could be inundated with a lake-full of water rather than just a river-full.

That's worst case scenario, obviously, but it's hard not to think of worst case scenario when it might happen so close to you. I'm about 10 miles from the Feather River, before it meets the Sacramento. The Thursday storm is supposed to be a warm one, but apparently the next one will be colder. That's good -- it means more snow in the mountains than rain, and less immediate runoff. It's going to be a nervous week, though.

My work parking lot was only about half full this morning, by the way. Don't know if it's related, but it was definitely odd.
posted by mudpuppie at 8:54 AM on February 13, 2017 [11 favorites]


The CA legislature hasn't been able to find its ass with both hands since the mid 80s or so. I have no idea how the state keeps running, tbh. It may be the fifth biggest economy in the world etc but its run by 5 year olds.

California's natural resources, strategic location, and power-house economy essentially allow it to be run by children and thrive anyway. Much like the United States as a whole really, what other country could possibly contemplate playing with debt defaults for internal political reasons and suffer essentially no consequences?
posted by atrazine at 9:04 AM on February 13, 2017 [7 favorites]


Can you imagine what a boon it would be to the USA in so many ways if we diverted some money into hiring people at a living wage to repair our dams, bridges, and levees? It would save money in the long run as we'd head off some of the massive damage caused in a catastrophic failure, improve our real employment numbers, get money circulating into some of our most depressed areas, and... won't happen.

Infrastructure repair, including dams, was one of Hillary's campaign issues as part of a jobs plan, and a promised focus for her first 100 days. Not that anybody asked her about it at the debates.
posted by lisa g at 9:17 AM on February 13, 2017 [48 favorites]


It's unlike the whole reservoir would drain as the spillways are not located on the earthern dam but on an adjacent slope that is rock. If it did, Sac might be "ok" but you might not have an airport anymore. And the Oroville complex generates a lot of power it's downstream of the dam).

If just the emergency spillway or control structure failed much less water will come out but enough to do a lot of damage. And if a levee fails, which is will, there will be catastrophic localized flooding at that breach.
posted by fshgrl at 9:17 AM on February 13, 2017


Yeah, that's a super important clarification -- I hadn't come across a diagram of the dam but it's good to hear that the spillways are built atop rocky faces so they don't have the super-catastrophic failure mode. That probably moves the Panic Indicator Dial down from Teton Dam to Very Very Very Bad.
posted by range at 9:22 AM on February 13, 2017


Nothing in the world
is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
nothing can surpass it.

The soft overcomes the hard;
the gentle overcomes the rigid.
Everyone knows this is true,
but few can put it into practice.


- Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching ch. 78, tr. Stephen Mitchell
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:25 AM on February 13, 2017 [21 favorites]


If we had a system that puts introverts in charge, the likes of Michael Dukakis, it would result in maintenance being prioritized over new construction, and (except if this thing turning out to be a design issue) incidents like this not happening as often.

What?
posted by fixedgear at 9:35 AM on February 13, 2017 [4 favorites]


It's almost like we could support our infrastructure and bring zillions of new jobs to Americans if we put some money into fixing this shit. I know, we could call it the New Deal.
posted by fiercecupcake at 9:38 AM on February 13, 2017 [12 favorites]


Here's what I don't understand: They're dropping a bunch of crushed rock into the eroded portion of the auxiliary spillway to fill the hole. Good. I haven't seen any reports yet describing the damage from a daylight perspective. But the fact remains that behind that wall of earth, there is a shit-ton of water exerting pressure on the hillside. It's weakened at least somewhat, and there may be unseen seepage from the lake side. And then when the rain comes again Wednesday night/Thursday, even with the crevasse plugged with crushed rock, the rock will be permeable, and further erosion could occur. It's the best they can do in a couple of days, but is it really going to fix the problem?

The dropped baskets of rocks aren't so much a fix as an ablative armor for the spillway. The partial collapse is a result of settlement beneath the concrete which increases as material is pulled away by the scouring action of water flow. Scouring itself is directly a result of water velocity along the face of the surface being scoured (potentially at a very local scale). Baskets of rocks will add turbulence to the water flowing over the bottom portion. This increase local forces at the top of the pile of debris, but should decrease forces at the bottom. Thus, additional surface scouring is slowed until the force of the water erodes/pulls/crushes the added piles of rocks down.

If there is an underlying issue of through soils erosion (piping), then this isn't going to change that in a significant way. However, the underlying geology at the spillway makes that appear unlikely. Nothing will be able to be properly fixed until the rainy season passes, lake water can be lowered and the area can be fully inspected.
posted by meinvt at 9:38 AM on February 13, 2017 [9 favorites]


If we had a system that puts introverts in charge, the likes of Michael Dukakis, it would result in maintenance being prioritized over new construction

I may have mentioned this here before, but my sister-in-law once took a graduate-level class taught by Michael Dukakis. She was very happy when she described how she once watched from afar as Michael Dukakis, walking alone across campus, stopped to pick up some litter.

These videos show some footage of the dam & downstream situation in 1983: Emerald Mile Youtube Trailer yt , Jeffe Aronson video compilation part 1 yt , part 2 yt .

Generally speaking, structures responsible for holding back Lake Powell should not shake violently. Here is a short write-up of the '83 event. As with Oroville, the danger originated with the spillway, although it was a different design. At Glen Canyon Dam, the damage was initially caused by cavitation: Surface imperfections in the spillway tubes introduced voids into the water (think of air bubbles with no air in them). These cavities collapsed violently, damaging the spillway structure ... which caused further cavitation. After cavitation had kick-started the damage, large amounts of fast-moving water chewed up massive amounts of rock. The failure mode perhaps would have involved a plugged diversion tunnel through which the Colorado River was routed during the dam's construction:
But what was of growing concern, and not even hinted at in public statements both during and after the flood, was the possibility that the plunging water, now working on the abutment at 1,000 tons per second, would erode enough sandstone from around the diversion tunnel plug in the left spillway that there would be a connection to the bottom of the reservoir. There would be no way to stop the high pressure leak that would uncontrollably grow in volume as it cut like a liquid laser through the aeolian rock. The whole reservoir would drain. No more water skiing. Besides the rain and snowmelt, over the course of a month or two the entire 27 million acre feet behind the dam would be sent on its way to the Gulf of California, in the process taking out much of the riverside municipal development, from Laughlin to Yuma, and all the rest of the dams down the river—except Hoover. Wedged into Black Canyon’s concrete-like andesite breccia, Hoover is so over-designed that it could withstand a prolonged and extreme overtopping.
This is what the spillway damage looked like.

Here is a video of a USGS dam-breach experiment. This seems more analogous to the Oroville situation than does the Glen Canyon Dam situation in 1983. As the failure progresses throughout the experiment, the rate of failure seems to get worse as well. I suspect that this is intended to simulate an earthen dam; it is encouraging to know that there's solid rock beneath Oroville's emergency spillways.
posted by compartment at 9:39 AM on February 13, 2017 [12 favorites]


If it did, Sac might be "ok" but you might not have an airport anymore.

Yeah, for those who aren't aware of it, the Sacramento airport is pretty much within spitting distance of the Feather River.
posted by mudpuppie at 9:44 AM on February 13, 2017 [2 favorites]


The CA legislature hasn't been able to find its ass with both hands since the mid 80s or so.

That's actually unfair. Due to Prop 13 and descendants, it requires a two-thirds majority in the Lege to do anything financial. Due to increasing craziness in the the Republican party minority, they used this to block anything useful including passing budgets. A few years ago their accumulated fuckwaddery caused them to lose enough seats to give the Dems the necessary super-majority, which they've mostly had since, and things have been considerably more sensible. It's not the Legislature being terrible, it's the Republicans being terrible, and that should be remembered.
posted by tavella at 10:00 AM on February 13, 2017 [47 favorites]


Eh. I've been working in CA water issues on and off for 20 years. It's always been a total shit show. The real work is done at the county level and by the water districts or other agencies. The legislature is really amazingly useless in terms of accomplishing anything no matter which party is in charge and has been for a very long time. It probably is a structural problem but I don't really care why they are worthless, they just are.

I'll tell you what though: if I lived in the evacuation zone I'd just stay gone through this week's storms. The emergency spillway was only running at 20,000 cfs or so per news reports, while the damaged main spillway was running at 100k. Inflow last week was 140k cfs, in 1997 it was almost 300k cfs. If the main spillway fails completely ... do the math. And remember water can erode bedrock, you just need more water. I don't think the whole dam will fail but there is likely to be another evacuation at the very least.

For those who want to know more and aren't familiar with the area Mark Finan, a meteorologist, has been giving excellent updates which are all over the internet now.
posted by fshgrl at 10:59 AM on February 13, 2017 [9 favorites]


Someone has already mentioned Cadillac Desert, the late Mark Reisner's epic account of the heroically futile decades-long campaign by the USA to, in effect, terraform the Southwest.

Previously on MeFi.
posted by Major Clanger at 11:39 AM on February 13, 2017 [3 favorites]




Vox: Kellyanne Conway's interview tricks, explained

Oh do you have both this thread and the current election thread open too?

Anyway, DWR news conference about to begin.
posted by mudpuppie at 12:04 PM on February 13, 2017


Infrastructure repair, including dams, was one of Hillary's campaign issues as part of a jobs plan, and a promised focus for her first 100 days. Not that anybody asked her about it at the debates.

The fact that this was not made a bigger deal frustrated me no end. It's one of the many reasons I was an ardent Hillary supporter.
posted by newpotato at 12:10 PM on February 13, 2017 [7 favorites]



I may have mentioned this here before, but my sister-in-law once took a graduate-level class taught by Michael Dukakis. She was very happy when she described how she once watched from afar as Michael Dukakis, walking alone across campus, stopped to pick up some litter.


Brookline residents will confirm he still does that.
posted by ocschwar at 12:19 PM on February 13, 2017 [4 favorites]


Because seva is how they roll.

The central valley has a rich Punjabi presence and represent a significant portion of the populace in parts of the evacuated area. Its been an interesting history with ongoing benefits.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 12:48 PM on February 13, 2017 [4 favorites]


For those who want to know more and aren't familiar with the area Mark Finan, a meteorologist, has been giving excellent updates which are all over the internet now.

His Twitter right now seems to suggest that efforts to fix the immediate problem are working. But my question is, after the fact, how to you fix a major fault in a dam? I'm sure there are ways but I don't know what they are.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:05 PM on February 13, 2017


It's not the dam -- it's the spillways that release water from the lake (the main and emergency spillway). The dam itself is fine.
posted by mudpuppie at 1:09 PM on February 13, 2017


They'll just fill in the hole, compact it and rebuild the spillway on top And grout any piping or voids that are subsurface. It's fixable for sure, most of the stuff is maintenance.
posted by fshgrl at 1:14 PM on February 13, 2017


To clarify, see this picture (from Wikipedia page on the Oroville dam). The main spillway is on the left side of the picture, and the emergency spillway is just out of the picture on the left - it's really a separate dam (a good picture at USA Today, under the 'How did this damage happen' head).

From upthread, it's a concrete-covered earthen dam set at a lower level than the main dam, so it's like the overflow drain in a bathroom sink. The problem is that if that dam fails, it could dump up to 30' of water into the canyon, flooding Butte County. Water would run into the Feather River, then into the Sacramento River, but that might flood some low-lying areas in Sacramento (including the Sacramento International Airport), before running into the Yolo Bypass which should still have enough capacity to handle it. I think.
posted by foonly at 1:22 PM on February 13, 2017 [3 favorites]


Amen, tavella. Prop 13 hamstrung our legislature until very recently.
posted by persona au gratin at 1:39 PM on February 13, 2017 [1 favorite]


Here is a video of a USGS dam-breach experiment.

If we do away with the USGS will that fix it?
posted by pashdown at 2:36 PM on February 13, 2017 [5 favorites]


This Wunderground blog post is a good factual summary with some photos and data I hadn't seen elsewhere. Including an alarming graph showing how much more precip we've gotten this year than previous years. Also a photo from spaaaace.
posted by Nelson at 3:09 PM on February 13, 2017 [3 favorites]


Unrelated and not as serious, but there's also been a levee breech south of Sacramento.

And, the highway that goes to Lake Tahoe is closed "indefinitely" because of mudslides. And they just shut down part a couple lanes of I-80, which goes over Donner Pass, because of yet another mudslide. (It's been shut down intermittently after these last few storms.)

It's basically just a really active rainy season, and we're at risk for additional problems until the worst of the snowmelt is over, which could be May or June.
posted by mudpuppie at 3:23 PM on February 13, 2017


That's actually unfair. Due to Prop 13 and descendants, it requires a two-thirds majority in the Lege to do anything financial. Due to increasing craziness in the the Republican party minority, they used this to block anything useful including passing budgets. A few years ago their accumulated fuckwaddery caused them to lose enough seats to give the Dems the necessary super-majority, which they've mostly had since, and things have been considerably more sensible. It's not the Legislature being terrible, it's the Republicans being terrible, and that should be remembered.

Isn't the reason they had to resort to such tactics is because the party in power were just ignoring they concerns of the minority party and so they didn't have any choice? Extended one party majorities in any systems are bad and lead to substantial part of the electorate feeling left out and then resented and eventually lash out?
posted by bartonlong at 3:38 PM on February 13, 2017


Isn't the reason they had to resort to such tactics is because the party in power were just ignoring they concerns of the minority party and so they didn't have any choice? Extended one party majorities in any systems are bad and lead to substantial part of the electorate feeling left out and then resented and eventually lash out?

California has had a Democratic majority in the state capitol since 1970. Governors have come and gone from both parties but the people have been pretty happy with the governance displayed.
posted by Talez at 3:42 PM on February 13, 2017 [2 favorites]


bartonlong:Isn't the reason they had to resort to such tactics is because the party in power were just ignoring they concerns of the minority party and so they didn't have any choice? Extended one party majorities in any systems are bad and lead to substantial part of the electorate feeling left out and then resented and eventually lash out?

No, it wasn't "both sides do it", it wasn't their delicate feefees being hurt, it was deliberate sabotage, by the increasingly crazy and lockstep Republican mentality we've seen all over the US. We had to pay people in fucking SCRIP because of those assholes. I don't necessarily love everything the Dem majority does here, but they actually function as politicians, and that's a good thing. They make compromises and agreements and get the budget passed.
posted by tavella at 3:56 PM on February 13, 2017 [13 favorites]


Question: Why would they extend the flash flood warning for Butte County for another 24 hours if the spillway threat was over? Is it because of the amount of water flowing into the river from the main spillway?
posted by mudpuppie at 4:24 PM on February 13, 2017


Just getting Prop 30 through was a lifesaver for California.
posted by Talez at 4:24 PM on February 13, 2017 [2 favorites]


Question: Why would they extend the flash flood warning for Butte County for another 24 hours if the spillway threat was over? Is it because of the amount of water flowing into the river from the main spillway?

Because the officials are currently delicately balancing water flowing from the main spillway and emergency spillway in an effort not to destroy either. There are yet more storms to come so this problem could occur again at any time and once the emergency spillway gives way there is not going to be much time to respond.
posted by Talez at 4:26 PM on February 13, 2017 [1 favorite]


Right, but they extended the flash flood watch until tomorrow afternoon (sorry I wasn't clearer), and it's going to be dry for the next couple days. It's not a weather-related threat, so I'm wondering what the actual threat is -- are they still worried that the spillway may fail today or tomorrow, on a sunny day, or is it that so much water is entering the river from the dam that the river level is rising?
posted by mudpuppie at 4:30 PM on February 13, 2017


They're going to release as much as possible over the next few days so if a levee fails there could be a flash flood is my understanding. An official "warning" has some kind of bureaucratic meaning probably too.
posted by fshgrl at 4:41 PM on February 13, 2017 [1 favorite]


The Sacramento Bee is reporting that "congressional representatives said Monday they were stunned to learn that Oroville did not have a backup slimmest paved with concrete". Then they go on to talk knowledgably about dam safety, as if they had heard about it before yesterday. I can't link on my phone but it's on the Bee's site under the mandatory "engineers knew threatening dam would fail!" article.

All I can say is what a crock of fucking shit. Unless they are brand new or brain damaged they know all about the aging water project. Oroville is the largest dam in it. And the FERC relicensing was only 10 years ago and very contentious. Huffman chairs the goddamn committee that overseas FERC. There is absolutely no way his office didn't know about this in great detail.

Assholes.
posted by fshgrl at 5:03 PM on February 13, 2017 [7 favorites]


To extend Talez' point, the watershed above Lake Oroville can't drain instantaneously, so it's still handling inflow from the most recent storm. This graph of the reservoir level has some startlingly steep increase rates.

So... how fast is water coming in right now while it isn't (?) raining? I went clicking around the amazing CDEC site and it has flow rates for hundreds of gauges around and above Lake Oroville. I picked one and it has been at a steady high flow since 02/10/2017 09:00. (Except that the last three hours are... n/a. Uh...)
posted by clew at 5:04 PM on February 13, 2017


Someone made a visualization of the water inflow and outflow. [Via the Reddit Megathread]
posted by b1tr0t at 5:24 PM on February 13, 2017 [2 favorites]


I think the flash flood warning is just the releases from the dam propagating downriver, compounded by the additional sediment that was picked up from the damaged spillways.
posted by ckape at 5:34 PM on February 13, 2017


If the Tableau graph adds any calculation or context to the original data, where is it explained?
posted by clew at 5:34 PM on February 13, 2017


California Department of Water Resources posted a few pictures of the work being done on the auxiliary spillway.
posted by ckape at 5:48 PM on February 13, 2017 [1 favorite]


This situation calls for Tommy Lee Jones, Anne Heche and some K-Rails. Or is that only for volcanos.
posted by humanfont at 6:11 PM on February 13, 2017


So part of Jerry Brown's request for federal aid (to which he has not received a response) is assistance for the people who had to evacuate. If it doesn't come through, it will be interesting to see how the population in an area that voted for Trump reacts. Man-of-the-people time.
posted by mudpuppie at 6:15 PM on February 13, 2017 [4 favorites]


I've answered my own "it will be interesting":

If Trump says he'll deny federal aid for evacuees unless CA drops its move towards becoming a sanctuary state and CA cities drop their sanctuary policies, and Brown says "No we're not going to do that," then the poorer, rural-ish, white evacuees are going to have an argument that Brown is choosing illegal immigrants over them, which actually ends up being a pro-Trump rallying cry for the people Trump tends to stir up anyway.

The federal aid question is almost as much of a nail-biter as what's going to happen with the spillway(s).
posted by mudpuppie at 7:33 PM on February 13, 2017 [3 favorites]


Uughhhhhhhggghhhhhhhhhhh. I think you're right, mudpuppie.

I just clicked on a random comment to those pictures DWR put on Twitter, and looked at his account.
posted by apricot at 10:58 PM on February 13, 2017


luckily oroville's congressman is on the case, cowboy hat in place and photo-op ready.

i'm sure he'll be first in line for disaster relief if his taxpayer-subsidized rice farm suffers damage

(best use of the congressman would be to drop his big butt into the spillway hole, cement it over, and elect a democrat in his place, tbqh)
posted by entropicamericana at 6:47 AM on February 14, 2017 [2 favorites]


Can you imagine what a boon it would be to the USA in so many ways if we diverted some money into hiring people at a living wage to repair our dams, bridges, and levees? It would save money in the long run as we'd head off some of the massive damage caused in a catastrophic failure, improve our real employment numbers, get money circulating into some of our most depressed areas, and... won't happen.

Big win for Trump right there.
posted by iffthen at 6:51 AM on February 14, 2017 [2 favorites]


Indeed it would be a big win for Trump. So far he's squandered 25% of his first 100 days, and showing little indication he'll put forward much of anything substantial over the remaining.
posted by notyou at 6:55 AM on February 14, 2017 [1 favorite]


Apparently they are lifting the mandatory evacuation order, but there's still an evacuation warning and they reserve the right to tell everyone to run for their lives again later if that becomes necessary. Great.
posted by zachlipton at 2:03 PM on February 14, 2017


Maaaaybe we should tell trump that dams and levees are like walls. Walls that keep things like water from actually like ,ya know, killing people.
posted by AlexiaSky at 2:20 PM on February 14, 2017 [1 favorite]


I don;t know, maybe we should accept not getting what remains of the federal government involved as a win - the chances of the Trump adminnot fucking things up abysmally are basically none.
posted by Artw at 5:12 PM on February 14, 2017 [1 favorite]


Oroville sure could use a Russian casino, though.
posted by b1tr0t at 5:18 PM on February 14, 2017


There's an interesting technical discussion with nice photos here about what won't happen, what might happen, what happened and what is happening. Some good footage of the area from a Bear in the Air and DWR who along with the OES have been killing it recently with their drones.

Good news, though! Oregon's seven unsatisfactory dams hit the news today which is of course just the lip o' the ol' spillway. Dam drama coming to a changed climate near you!
posted by Ogre Lawless at 12:06 PM on February 15, 2017 [4 favorites]


Infuriating bit (as a norteno) at the presser yesterday BTW, from a SoCal reporter asking if the water was "just flowing to the sea," which Of Couse because The Southland.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 12:09 PM on February 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


It's going to be interesting to see what the main spillway looks like once they can shut it off again.
posted by ckape at 1:35 PM on February 15, 2017


From the press conference, the water is currently below the emergency spillway level. The plan is to run 100,000 CFS of water over the damaged main spillway to the extent they're able to do so, with an intent to drop the water level 50' over the next few days, as another storm is expected later this week.
As of 4AM today, the water level was 880 feet, a drop of just 21' from the overflow level of 901'. Has DWR commented on whether the level is dropping rapidly enough to handle the expected incoming storm waters?
posted by b1tr0t at 3:08 PM on February 15, 2017


At the press conference earlier today they said that the rate they're sending water out the main spillway is higher than the expected inflow from the storms.
posted by ckape at 3:55 PM on February 15, 2017


I haven't seen anything b1tr0t. But if you look at a month's data at Oroville you'll see they were maintaining the level at about 850' until the water started coming in from the latest storms starting around Feb 3. There were four days in a row where more than 100,000 CFS came in, up to 150,000 CFS. They're currently dumping 100,000 CFS.

My completely not-expert view of this is they bought a little time, but if it rains as much as it did two weeks ago they're at risk of topping the emergency spillway again. ckape's report is encouraging if they think it won't be so much rain.

There's also still the concern about whether that damaged primary spillway is going to hold up.
posted by Nelson at 3:56 PM on February 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


The latest storms are expected to be drier than the last (no Pineapple Express pulling warm moisture from the tropics), and colder (same reason), so the snow level will be lower (which means the water won't work down to the reservoir so quickly).

But I'm not a weather forecaster.
posted by notyou at 4:03 PM on February 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


Yeah they should be ok.

I'm reading so many dumb comments online about who's fault this is and who should pay for it. Protip: if you are arguing federal vs state you are missing the entities that would have had to pay for a lot of the upgrades 10 years ago, the water agencies.

LaMalfa is an enormous tool. And the director of DNR is claiming he can't remember the FERC process.
posted by fshgrl at 4:20 PM on February 15, 2017 [2 favorites]


Alternate link explaining why The Dam Will Not Collapse.

High resolution DWR photo archive

FEMA approved emergency aid funds requests yesterday
posted by b1tr0t at 5:30 PM on February 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


I see lots of diagrams explaining that erosion of the emergency spillway won't damage the original dam, but none saying how deep a channel eroded through the emergency spillway would go before it stopped. Pretty deep, if they fear a lot of water moving through it. Then it doesn't matter how solid the original dam is, the reservoir won't hold its planned volume until a second dam fills that gap. (Does that gap have the right kind of bedrock?)
posted by clew at 6:14 PM on February 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


Apparently they are feeling secure enough to lower the flow from the main spillway so they can clear debris and restart the power plant.
posted by ckape at 12:05 PM on February 16, 2017 [3 favorites]


Omri, got a URL for the live stream?
posted by Coventry at 2:57 PM on February 19, 2017


I found one from FOX10 Phoenix.

It's a FB Live link.
posted by spinifex23 at 3:00 PM on February 19, 2017 [2 favorites]


Thanks, spinifex23.
posted by Coventry at 3:07 PM on February 19, 2017 [1 favorite]


The one I ran into (from Woz) has since shut down.
posted by ocschwar at 3:09 PM on February 19, 2017


A major infrastructure project is failing right before our eyes, and we don't have any real solution for it.

Hmmm. The solution might be tax cuts. Or, if that doesn't work, tax cuts.
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 3:49 PM on February 19, 2017 [13 favorites]




I’m watching that live feed. Am I correct to assume that there shouldn’t be all that water pouring off the side of the main spillway? ’Cause, uh, that’s scary.
posted by nicepersonality at 4:47 PM on February 19, 2017


I’m watching that live feed. Am I correct to assume that there shouldn’t be all that water pouring off the side of the main spillway? ’Cause, uh, that’s scary.

That's where the spillway has eroded. It's not great but thankfully the Feather River runs across the path of the river. The biggest concern is the erosion of the hillside, picking up the trees and silt and shit and it all washing down river. Right now the downstream is a rather unpleasant shade of brown because of all the silt the river has picked up from the emergency and eroded part of the spillways.
posted by Talez at 4:52 PM on February 19, 2017 [1 favorite]


Well it's scary but it's been a stable situation for the past week. It actually looks worse with the lowered output they've been doing for the past few days because less water gets kicked up onto the bottom concrete portion.

The danger is if that damage starts creeping upwards again they might have to shut off the main spillway and hope the auxiliary spillway repairs hold up.
posted by ckape at 4:55 PM on February 19, 2017


It's bad enough that Sacramento has evacuated DeMarcus Cousins. He should be safe from any potential flooding in New Orleans, though.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 10:19 AM on February 20, 2017 [1 favorite]


In other California dam news, the Don Pedro Dam spillway has been opened. (KCRA has a FB live feed with an unhelpful camera angle.)

There does not appear to be any danger of the dam or spillway failing, but the Tuolomne River is already high and the released water is expected to push it above flood stage.
posted by ckape at 3:15 PM on February 20, 2017 [1 favorite]


They will be shutting off the main spillway today and (as long as the water doesn't get too high) plan to keep it off for a week or so, to inspect the damage and clear debris.

I don't know if they will be doing any stabilization work on the main spillway when it's off, but a full repair will probably have to wait until after the spring snowmelt.
posted by ckape at 12:17 PM on February 27, 2017 [3 favorites]


Per the NWS forecast discussion today, the rest of the week will be dry, with a smallish precipitation event over the weekend, and another 10 days to two weeks of dry after that.

Possibly it's okay to exhale now.
posted by notyou at 12:34 PM on February 27, 2017 [1 favorite]


KCRA has new photos and video taken from their helicopter.
posted by ckape at 4:16 PM on February 27, 2017 [2 favorites]


If you saw that DWR helicopter down by the spillway in the KCRA video and was all "I sure wish I could see the footage from THAT helicopter" well you're in luck.
posted by ckape at 10:30 PM on February 27, 2017 [2 favorites]


I was just coming to post those links, ckape! They are WOW.
posted by rtha at 8:10 AM on February 28, 2017


Who's up for a gold panning meetup on the Feather River??
posted by mudpuppie at 8:57 AM on February 28, 2017 [1 favorite]


Wow, that water definitely made its own damn spillway. Though it -- doesn't look that awful? It's mostly running over rock, and it looks like there's plenty of structure to rebuild a spillway on top of. More messy than irretrievable.
posted by tavella at 10:13 AM on February 28, 2017


It’s certainly repairable - the danger was that the water flow would undercut the spillway right up to the top of the dam & then compromise the dam itself.
posted by pharm at 10:11 AM on March 1, 2017 [3 favorites]


Here's a nice collection of images and video of the spillway. Also an update with more.
posted by Nelson at 12:14 PM on March 2, 2017


They've restarted one of the six turbines at the power plant. Even at full capacity the power plant's output is still a bit less than the current inflows to the reservoir, but it does buy more time for spillway work.
posted by ckape at 3:36 PM on March 3, 2017 [1 favorite]


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