Oroville Dam Reminds Us That Water Is, Ultimately, Uncontrollable


Major sinkhole on spillway at Lake Oroville

The Oroville spillway is both gigantically and terribly small

A reminder that, no matter your politics, nature wins. 


The Pleistocene Epoch was an unsettled and tumultuous period in this history of our continent, riven as it was with massive volcanic outbursts that reshaped the land and punctuated by impossibly large glaciers which bent the earth and carved our modern world. But despite that, there were already the outlines of our current planet. The Colorado River, for example, was roughly already formed. It wasn’t without its difficulties, though.

Throughout the era (about 1.8 million years ago to about 11,000 years ago), a series of volcanic eruptions in the southwest released so much lava into the Grand Canyon that massive dams formed throughout it during this period. As many as 13 times the Colorado, which didn’t yet know it was the Colorado, was dammed up. Some of these dams were massive, as high as 600 meters, which is nearly 2000 feet. Some of them were also nearly a quarter mile thick.

The largest of these could take thousands of years to form, and I want you to imagine the relentless energy it took to create these, and then imagine their enormity. At 2000 feet high, and a quarter-mile thick, the biggest of these dwarfed the Hoover Dam. They were created by a relentless and explosive process, and set down with the permanence of mountains. But of course, they didn’t last. Even during their birth, they were already being eroded away by the Colorado. Over the course of a few hundred or a few thousand years, the water ate away at these dams, time and time again. It never lost.

When looking at what is happening to the Oroville Dam in California right now, it is important to remember those forces.

Record rainfalls have pushed Lake Oroville, created by the dam (the tallest in America), to its limit. The spillway, designed to ease pressure from the lake, eroded due to overuse, due to a constant churning water that was sent down it. So for the first time in its history, the water managers at Oroville used the auxiliary spillway, which itself has sustained damage, and throughout a tense night looked unsure if it would hold. If that collapsed, an entire region could be flooded. As of right now, there is tentative stability, but with more rain on the way the situation can change at any minute.

Really, this is no one’s fault. I have no doubt there will be recriminations about the failure of the main spillway, and possibly there should be. But at the end of the day, there was simply too much water for even the largest of California’s ambitions. It’s a cruel irony that this happens during a drought, of course (for while these rainfalls were a relief, there is little guarantee that the drought is over, longterm). Sometimes, water will overwhelm.

Actually, strike that: always. Water will always overwhelm. As a species, we’ve done amazing work hemming it in, taming wild rivers, building seawalls to reclaim land, draining marshes and fens, paving it over, drying it up. A lot of this work has been for the good. Oroville is one of the most important dams for US agriculture, and the water it helps controls feeds America, and the world.

But that success gives us an incorrect assumption of permanence. In all the articles I was reading about Oroville, they kept returning to a similar line: this is the first time that the emergency spillway has had to be used since the dam opened when Ronald Reagan was the governor. It was always with a bit of awe at the vast scope of this unprecedented event.

And yes, Reagan was governor a long time ago. But it wasn’t that long ago. It was during this same geologic eyeblink. We’re just now beginning to realize that this era of prosperity and good fortune was fortuitous chance: water levels in the west over the last 200 years were at a high point, which convinced us that we’d always have this much. A great civilization was built around that assumption, which now seems unsustainable, at least at the same level.

Sometimes there is too little water. Sometimes there is too much. Either way is generally more than we can handle, even if, as a species, we’ve shown we can handle a lot.We can alter the climate, we can heat the oceans, but we won’t be able to handle the rising seas. Water wins out. It always does.

The Oroville Dam has lasted nearly 50 years, and will continue to last (the dam itself is fine). But floods will happen. Water will eat away at its foundations. Smart and dedicated people will work to prevent that, but eventually, civilization will move or change or just die off, and the Oroville will be subject to the same forces that melted the great volcanic dams of the Pleistocene. The Hoover will be overrun and will collapse. It has yet to see its 100th birthday. Given what the Colorado has seen, it is just merest flicker.

The point isn’t depair. It’s that the sooner we realize our impermanence in the face of implacable and unconcerned nature, the sooner we can stop hastening it.

5 thoughts on “Oroville Dam Reminds Us That Water Is, Ultimately, Uncontrollable

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