Like everyone else, Robert Bea was appalled when almost 200,000 Californians living below Oroville Dam were ordered to flee for their lives on February 12th. The evacuation was necessitated by severe erosion of the dam’s primary and emergency spillways caused by massive releases of water following torrential winter rains. But unlike most citizens, Bea knew the incident wasn’t engendered strictly by the vagaries of nature or an act of God. Human error was at play.
A UC Berkeley Engineering professor emeritus, one of the nation’s foremost forensic engineers, and the founder of Berkeley’s Center for Catastrophic Risk Management (CCRM), Bea had long been worried about the design and management of the dam. He expressed those concerns to a state Department of Water Resources (DWR) engineer while visiting the Oroville site in April. The engineer opined that fixes DWR was making to the spillways were sufficient to stabilize the structure. Bea vigorously disagreed, countering DWR was downplaying the risks.
…The main portion of the spillway that blew out is a section known as Station 3300. We found documents and photographs dating all the way back to a 1998 inspection report that confirmed there were major problems with this section. Essentially, they were screams for help that went largely ignored. DWR tried patching cracks, even filling up voids, but on that structure, finding the hollow areas is like trying to find a stud behind a wall by tapping it with a hammer. There’s a lot of room for error, and the repairs were far from adequate. Also, some of the patches actually trapped water so it couldn’t drain out, and that further compromised structural integrity. All this has been going on since at least 1998, so it’s no surprise that things went wrong at Station 3300.
…First, rigorous state and federal guidelines exist for the risk-based management of dams. Some of them were issued by President Carter following the Teton Dam failure in Idaho in 1976 [which killed eleven people and caused massive property damage]. But they’re simply being ignored. Dams should be viewed like nuclear power plants or jet airliners. With both nuclear plants and passenger jets, there is tremendous emphasis on managing and minimizing risks, and that’s appropriate. But dams are treated like inert piles of dirt or concrete that have no potential for catastrophic failure, and that’s simply not the case. Oroville isn’t just a big dirt plug with a bunch of cows and corn downstream. If it failed, it would be the worst disaster in the history of the United States. The people at DWR are not bad human beings, but it’s apparent to me that they’re not up to the risk management challenges they’re facing.
…From the larger perspective, the problem with Oroville, with our entire water delivery infrastructure, really, where there are multiple danger points, isn’t concrete, steel, dirt, or water. It’s people. Many of the people who are in decision-making positions don’t have the expertise they need to make those decisions. Water is our most essential natural resource, we need it, but if you turn your back on it, it can kill you. We have to have people in power who understand that, who are willing to take the actions necessary to protect the public.
Read the whole interview here