PHOTOS: Oroville Spillway Damage Reveals Challenges of Aging Water Infrastructure

Oroville Lake and Dam (Breitbart News)
Joel Pollak / Breitbart News

FRESNO — The spray from the damaged spillway of the Oroville Dam was visible from several nautical miles away as water poured out of the lake on Monday and into the Feather River below.

Next to the spillway, the emergency spillway — which nearly collapsed last month — appeared to be covered with a slurry of blue-green hydroseed, in an evident effort to increase vegetation on the denuded hillside and stabilize the landscape in anticipation of more rain in the days and weeks ahead.

Oroville Dam Spillway (Joel Pollak / Breitbart News)

On the vernal equinox, traditionally the first day of spring, evidence of California’s wettest winter was apparent across the Central Valley. Breitbart News joined the Westlands Water District and several local journalists in a flyover of the state’s reservoir system, which was nearly emptied over five years of drought, made a modest comeback in 2016 after El Niño brought rain back to Northern California, and is now struggling to deal with massive rainfall and the coming snowmelt.

The damage at Oroville is just one example of how state and federal authorities are struggling to manage the flow of water — and the challenge of aging infrastructure in a water storage system that has not been updated significantly in several decades.

There are some ironies. Last year, on March 21, Breitbart News observed the Folsom Dam at near-full levels, releasing water down its spillway in anticipation of the winter snowmelt.

This year, with the snowmelt expected to be much larger, the relatively shallow dam had already been drawn down drastically, and appeared to be relatively empty, despite ongoing rains.

Folsom Dam (Joel Pollak / Breitbart News)

On the west side of the Central Valley, the San Luis Reservoir — where water is pumped to be stored until moved out through the California Aqueduct — was near 100% capacity for the first time since 2011, a marked difference from the previous year.

San Luis Reservoir (Joel Pollak / Breitbart News)

On the ground, Breitbart News toured farmlands around Fresno, where some local suppliers have more water than they can handle and are asking farmers to use as much as possible to relieve pressure downstream. But farmers, chastened by the five bitter years of drought, are not celebrating their good fortune. Instead, they are banking the benefits of bumper crops this year and planning nervously for the next.

California Aqueduct (Joel Pollak / Breitbart News)

Meanwhile, farmers elsewhere are still not receiving their full allocations from state and federal water authorities, as water continues to be pumped into waterways and out to sea to help the endangered Delta smelt.

Farming has become as much a political exercise as an agricultural one, as local growers lobby state and federal lawmakers for assistance with flooding along creeks that have been neglected for years and have burst their banks. And Governor Jerry Brown is in Washington this week, sounding a conciliatory note as he files the fourth request in the last two months for emergency assistance.

As the Oroville Dam crisis shows, managing plenty turns out to be as difficult as managing scarcity in California’s aging water system.

And there is more rain ahead this week, as spring begins.

Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He was named one of the “most influential” people in news media in 2016. His new book, How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.


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