Endangered California: Serious Flooding Close

The Oroville Dam is regarded as the tallest dam in the U. S. at 770 feet (235 m) high. It serves mainly as a flood control, hydroelectricity generation as well as a means of water supply. It is in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada east of the Sacramento Valley. It is about 159 miles northeast of San Francisco. This dam is notable for impounding the second largest California human-made lake. It can store more than 3.5 million acre-feet of water. It is one of the key features of the California State Water Project after completion by the California Department of Water Resources.

butte county lake oroville

Even though much difficulties were encountered before the completion of the dam; the dam was a success. It was reported that during its construction, multiple floods and a train wreck was experienced. Recently after years of completion, the dam faces a very severe crisis. This crisis has led to the order for the evacuation of almost 200, 000 individuals.


The plan to have a project developed for irrigation purposes of the highly fertile Central Valley. Thus, in 1935, the Central Valley Project, a federal project, planned to develop the Sacramento and San Joaquin river systems for irrigation. However, in 1945, California experienced an economic boom as well as a rapid urban and commercial growth, especially in the central and southern portion. Thus, it became evident that the state could not only depend on solely a water system that is geared primarily towards agriculture. Thus, the California State Legislature enacted an Act, under which a study was conducted about to the California’s water supplies.

In 1951, a project was proposed by the California State Engineer A.D. Edmonston. However, this proposal didn’t see the light of the day as it was strongly opposed by some parts of Southern California as well as Northern California voters. The proposal was strongly opposed because it comprises a major dam on the Feather River at Oroville as well as the installation of pumping plants and aqueducts for the transfer of stored water to places in Southern and Central California. Flooding experienced in 1950 brought about the passage of a flood control bill which brings about sufficient fund for the construction of a dam at Oroville.

water lake oroville

After setting this out, a ground-breaking dam site was secured in May 1957, and the Western Pacific Railroad tracks were relocated. The project was authorized on the 8th of November 1960. Engineer Donald Thayer of Department of Waters Resources was commissioned head the construction of the dam as well as to design it. The contract was awarded to Oro Dam Constructors Inc. during the construction; it was constructed in such a way that it will withstand the flood. However, on December 22, 1964, disaster almost struck as the Feather River rose above the already constructed peak of the Oroville Dam site after days of heavy rain. This flood was considered as one of the deadliest floods in Northern California, but the dam reduced the flow of the River by 40%. During this construction, a train wreckage delayed the construction by a week. Right now, nothing seems cool, calm, and collected like the summer time.

busy lake oroville

This dam was designed to withstand any form of an earthquake even the strongest. It is an earth fill dam with hundreds of water pressure instruments. It was nicknamed “the dam that talks back.” It was however completed on October 6, 1967, and was dedicated officially by the State of California on May 4, 1968. It was re-licenced in 2006 after a memo was sent about to the standard of its emergency spillway.


The problem started on February 7, 2017, after a period of heavy rain. A hole appeared in the Oroville Dam Spillway during an ongoing flood control released at around 50, 000 cubic feet per second. The high inflows, however, forced the continuance use of the damaged spillway. This use, however, results in additional damage. It was discovered on the 10th of February that the spillway hole had been widened to 45 feet deep, 300 feet wide and 500 feet long. Debris from this hole, however, hurts the Feather River Fish Hatchery downstream.

aerial lake oroville

On February 11, history was made as the auxiliary spillway began carrying water. At that period, there was no threat to public safety according to the officials. The flow was said to have topped out at 12, 600 cu ft/s. On the 12th of February, those in Butte, Yuba and Sutter Counties closer to the low-lying area of the river basin was ordered to evacuate due to an anticipated failure of the auxiliary spillway. As at then, the flow through the main spillway was increased to over 100, 000 cu ft/s. In the evening of the same day, the auxiliary spillway stopped overflowing due to the increased flow of the principal spillway. On the 13th day of February, the day when a damage assessment was expected, almost 200,000 people were evacuated from the vicinity.

On February 14, the mandatory evacuation was lifted by the Sheriff of Butte County following the assurances by both State and Federal Officials about to the safety of the spillway. Everything has been set in preparation for the rain on the 15th of February.


The damage in the dam could lead to the breakdown of the dam. This would, in turn, lead to a destruction of the dam if not repaired as it will not be able to hold water firmly as it usually did. Thus, an increasing flood which would lead to the destruction of houses and property. It would also bring about a total blackout to some areas using the Oroville dam-generated electricity. Apart from this, the usage of the dam for irrigation purposes will be defeated. Moreover, the Feather River Fish Hatchery will suffer a lot. This is because the Oroville Dam completely blocks the migration of Chinook Salmon as well as Steelhead trout in the Feather River. The damage will cause both economic loss and the loss of lives if care is not taken.


It seems the future of Oroville Dam is gloomy unless there is a rethink on how to deal with the infrastructure. Practically, the dam was not designed for the current climate but a climate experienced at the point of design and construction. Thus, a rethink is needed as to how the infrastructure will cope with the change in climate.

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