Oroville Dam drags California’s $65 billion infrastructure annual price tag into the open
PUBLISHED: February 14, 2017 at 6:39 pm | UPDATED: February 15, 2017 at 12:52 pm
Helicopter crews scramble to shore up Oroville Dam
SACRAMENTO — Shock over the emergency evacuation downriver from the Oroville Dam has given way to serious questions about how California is coping with its aging infrastructure — which the American Society of Civil Engineers says would cost the state a staggering $65 billion per year to fix and maintain after years of neglect.
“The idea that we have to evacuate 200,000 residents in this day and age is just a shame,” said Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, pointing to a Bay Area News Group story this week that revealed how state and federal officials in 2005 ignored warnings about the dam’s emergency spillway.
Fixing old roads, bridges and dams is a costly proposition that is often the first to be put on hold during times of fiscal crisis, experts say. They note that the physical underpinnings of our society tend to be invisible until they fail and there’s a mad scramble to repair the damage.
But now, amid deep concern over the safety of the state’s second largest dam and with a Republican White House eager to spend as much as $1 trillion over 10 years on infrastructure, California finds itself in an awkward position politically.
“The state of California can’t write checks to cover its infrastructure needs — plain and simple,” said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution who was a strategist for former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson. “If the state of California wants to address its myriad infrastructure needs, it needs Washington’s cooperation.”
Sacramento and Washington are now butting heads on issues ranging from health to illegal immigration. But many political moderates hoping they will find common ground in potholes and bridges took heart Tuesday when President Donald Trump’s chief spokesman called the Oroville crisis a “textbook case” of why investing in infrastructure is so critical.
“Dams, bridges, roads and all ports around the country have fallen into disrepair,” Press Secretary Sean Spicer said. “In order to prevent the next disaster, we will pursue the president’s vision for an overhaul of our nation’s crumbling infrastructure.”
But Trump has yet to identify the funding source for such a sweeping proposal, said Rep John Garamendi, D-Elk Grove, who worries that Congress will adhere to its strict “A-B-C” policy even if it does appropriate the money: “Anything But California.”
While the state might turn to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, for help, its bargaining power was diminished after President Barack Obama’s departure, Whalen said. What’s more, Garamendi said, “the California delegation is not unified. Republicans don’t often work with the Democrats — and vice-versa.”
Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed investing $43 billion in infrastructure over the next five years, with the vast majority of the money going to transportation. California voters approved a $7.5 billion water bond in 2014 for a range of needs from flood control to water storage, but that falls far short of needs for flood control and increasing the water supply.
With its extraordinarily complex system of levees, dams and pipelines, the state needs to spend $2.8 billion per year for a decade to protect its citizens from floods, according to the 2013 report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Failing to do so, the report warns, could lead to dire consequences: “A catastrophic failure of any one of the levee systems in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta carries with it the very real potential to be a mega-disaster greater than Hurricane Katrina caused in New Orleans.”
The group releases a report card every four years, with the latest due out next month.
Dodd said he hopes the dangerous situation at the Oroville Dam leads to smarter decisions by everyone in state government, including the Legislature. He said that until he read this news organization’s report concerning ignored warnings about the Oroville emergency spillway, he didn’t know the need existed.
“While I’m pleased with how they dealt with this in this emergency situation,” he said, “I’m just kind of lamenting the fact that we had an opportunity to learn something 12 years ago.”
Brown made a similar acknowledgment to reporters on Monday, saying, “I’m glad we found out about that.”
The warnings sounded years ago about Oroville Dam’s emergency spillway fit a common pattern, said the Hoover Institution’s Whalen.
When the next disaster strikes, he said, “you will find the same thing: Somebody warned about it five to 10 years ago and California didn’t have the money and Washington didn’t want to spend the money.”