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Oroville Dam Crisis Illustrates the Need for Investment in Infrastructure

An historic rainfall is threatening the integrity of a Northern California dam that provides flood control for the region while also providing drinking water to 23 million people. The Oroville Dam, which is the nation’s tallest, has a deep crevice in it, which has given local officials there fears and who have order evacuations of nearly 200,000 people.

If it collapses, it would pour untold amounts of water into the local towns, destroying homes and lives. Some say that this is why the nation needs to reinvest in its infrastructure — that decades of neglect have led to this and that the result is the loss of economic opportunity. There have been warnings that the dam didn’t meet modern construction or environmental standards.

As a result of the pending crisis, officials opened the dam’s emergency spillway for the first time since the 1960s, all because of record levels of rainfall and snow. About 100,000 feet of water per second has been released. While the water drained from the dam, it worsened an existing crevice at the site. That caused further fears — that huge blocks of concrete would break off and the whole thing would come crumbling down.

The good news is that the dam has not broken down and that water levels have receded.

“Well, ultimately, what the big fear was, that there would be an uncontrolled release from the reservoir,” says Jeffrey Mount, senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center, in an interview the PBS Newshour. (It) “would have resulted in catastrophic flooding downstream.

“I think the big thing, big takeaway here when you look at this is that the engineers probably dismissed the idea of coating that hillside in concrete, because it would be very, very expensive to mitigate something that was highly unlikely to happen. And it never happened before in the dam’s history,” Mount concluded.

He said that the problem could intensify in the future given that weather-related events are anticipated to get more intense as a result of climate change.

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