California nonprofits warned regulators years ago that the Oroville Dam was potentially unsafe. (Photo: San Diego Union Tribune)

On February 12, local law enforcement warned nearly 200,000 people in Northern California to evacuate, citing potential 3-story high walls of onrushing water from the nearby failing Oroville Dam. Meanwhile, construction workers raced to repair damage to the main spillway before the next rainfall. California Department of Water Resources (CDWR) officials had been caught napping, and now potentially faced one of the largest infrastructure catastrophes since the Johnstown flood in 1889.

While authorities have been making progress repairing the emergency spillway, and have now rescinded the evacuation order, perhaps the biggest question in many Northern Californians’ minds is: “Why didn’t officials know?”

The answer, unfortunately, is that they did — 12 years earlier.

“A Loss of Crest Control”

In 2005, several nonprofits, including Friends of the River, filed a motion with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) which argued that the Oroville dam was in danger of losing “crest control”:

“A loss of crest control could not only cause additional damage to project lands and facilities but also cause damages and threaten lives in the protected floodplain downstream,” the groups wrote.

These environmental protection nonprofits urged federal officials to require that the dam’s emergency spillway be armored with concrete, rather than remain an earthen hillside. However, when the CDWR and other agencies argued that the changes were unnecessary, the FERC denied the nonprofits’ request.

According to FERC officials, the emergency spillway could handle 350,000 cubic feet of water per second. However, after water flows of 6-12,000 cubic feet per second — less than 5 percent of what federal officials said the spillway could take — it started to fail, and authorities ordered a mandatory evacuation of the area below.

California Department of Water Resources Acting Director Bill Croyle said he was “not familiar with 2005 documentation or conversation” about spillway concerns.

Lester Snow, who was CDWR director from 2004 to 2010, said he “doesn’t recall the FERC process” and that “the dam and the outlet structures have always done well in tests and inspections.”

Cost for Repair

Officials have now estimated the cost of repairing the dam will be upwards of $100-$200 million, the Los Angeles Times reported. However, industry officials that the Tax Revolution Institute spoke to estimated that the cost would be much higher — closer to $300-$400 million.

The $400 million figure is probably more accurate, as repairs to the nearby Anderson Dam have cost the district nearly $400 million.

So, how much would it have cost if state and federal officials had listened to the nonprofits?

About $100 million.

Not only would 200,000 lives never have been put in danger, but the cost to armor, instead of repair, the spillway might have been at least between three and four times less expensive.

The Next Crisis

The California Department of Water Resources, the government agency primarily responsible for monitoring the Oroville dam, is also responsible for monitoring another 677 “high hazard” dams ( i.e. where loss of life is “probable” with “one or more expected” along with massive property damage in case of dam failure). Given that the agency ignored warnings that the dam had potential to fail, and considering that those same warnings may have been ignored at any one of the hundreds of other California dams, the question becomes: How do we stop this from happening again?

Usually, the solution would be a new regulation, perhaps requiring the CWDR or FERC to take concerns on critical infrastructure more seriously, or the firing of the officials and directors responsible. Unfortunately, asking government agencies to watch themselves more closely tends to be a losing proposition.

So, why don’t we take an economic principle we use nearly everywhere else, and allow people to redirect at least some of their tax dollars used to fund the CWDR to the organizations that caught this impending disaster over a decade ago? When the investors of Volkswagen, Inc. discovered that the company installed sophisticated “defeat devices” in their diesel cars to trick emissions tests, they responded. Volkswagen stock dropped by 50 percent. This is a lesson the company won’t soon forget.

CWDR’s failure here could have been far more disastrous than just more air pollution. Officials gave some residents mere minutes to evacuate from their homes. If the dam had failed, it could have been fatal for hundreds, if not thousands, of people. There is no way of knowing how many of California’s “high hazard” dams are facing a similar type of failure, and it is imperative for the California state government to take the necessary steps to protect its citizens by empowering those who are best equipped to protect them.

It is obvious that these nonprofits did a better job monitoring the dam’s condition than the CDWR did. With the right resources, nonprofits could have prevented the needless uprooting of 200,000 lives, and certainly saved the state hundreds of millions of dollars in repair costs.

One legislative tool that could be used to enable the most effective oversight of the state’s water resources is the charitable tax credit. Several states, including Arizona, offer tax credits to citizens, allowing them to send their tax dollars, dollar-for-dollar, to organizations and entities that outperform government agencies or programs. California lawmakers could easily implement an environmental, or river tax credit, to help taxpayers enable organizations like Friends of the River and the Sierra Club to inspect, report on, and oversee some of California’s most crucial water resources.

A tax credit of this type could help ensure the safety of Californians. Instead of relying on a state agency that has clearly already failed its citizens in a remarkable way, taxpayers in California could send their money to organizations that notice problems in their infrastructure years before government agencies, helping prevent even the threat of a disaster like Oroville from happening in the future. Since the taxpayer would be redirecting their funds, a tax credit of this type would also save the State of California the millions of dollars it would take to upgrade the CDWR so that Californians could once again trust the agency to oversee the state’s dams.

Finally, a tax credit would give Californians the ability to determine which organizations will better protect their safety, and fund those organizations directly with their tax dollars. In the long-term, this could be a very viable solution to hold state environmental agencies accountable for their actions.

This time, nearly 200,000 people were evacuated. But with 677 other high-hazard dams, including those that are operating at unsafe water levels, Californians should seek and demand better options from their legislators to prevent this from happening again. Why not give these nonprofits an option to do what they do best?