Oroville Dam - What is Next?


I got a question about Oroville Dam from a Facebook follower today, and coincidentally I’ve been reading some of the reports relating to the dam this evening. It got me thinking about how we deal with managing risks associated with very large engineering projects - that’s something I do in my daily work.

Just in case you’ve been living under a rock and missed the near miss we had last winter relating to the damaged Oroville Dam Spillway, the emergency spillway, and the evacuation of the entire region downstream of the dam… I recommend that you visit the YouTube channel Blancolirio, where commercial pilot, critical thinker, and citizen journalist Juan Browne has been vlogging about Oroville Dam since February. This is an excellent series, and Juan continues to follow the construction and enormous engineering challenges as the Department of Water Resources works to repair the spillway before our next winter season. I recently went back and re-watched some of the first videos in this series, and Juan does a really good job of reporting as events unfold.

It reminded me of the first weeks after the Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown, when I was in Tokyo advising GE's Japan operations, and just how important it was to provide calm and accurate information to our employees in Japan.

The DWR’s Independent Forensic Team issued an interim report a few days ago summarizing many of their findings. Their full report will be issued later in the fall. But among the lessons learned are some principles that I’ve been living with during the 30 years that I’ve been working in waste management, emergency response and crisis management, and financing of very large engineering projects. Many of the project I get involved with are extremely expensive and planned to be around for generations. We finance these projects with the assumption that they are designed and built well, with revenues that will pay off the cost of construction (which is what my bank finances) over a long period of time, usually 20 or 30 years.

But even with all the planning and careful construction, any large engineering project has an intended lifespan, and we’ve gotten very used to keeping these projects in operation long past those initial design lifespans. That can be a good thing, but as with everything there is a cost.

So what are the lessons learned at Oroville Dam that overlap with my work?

  1. Physical inspections are never going to be enough to monitor an aging piece of critical infrastructure. We need these physical inspections, along with good sensing data where we can’t see critical features, but we need to combine that with periodic evaluations of the project design against our current knowledge and experience. That way we can assess where we may have to make improvements to reflect industry best practices.
  2. Simply complying with the regulations may not be enough to manage key life safety and engineering risks. Project owners MUST always consider that they may have to exceed regulatory requirements in order to ensure the infrastructure is safe and sound. That was a lesson that was drilled into me again and again when I worked on Navy projects and at General Electric Company, and I always include human health and life safety risks as a critical evaluation item in my work. As the IFT report states, “Regulators have an essential role in management of dam safety, but do not have the resources nor the primary responsibility for managing dam safety. That responsibility, both ethically and legally, rests with dam owners, and dam owners must, therefore, develop and maintain mature dam safety management programs which are based on a strong “top-down” dam safety culture.”

Here is a link to the IFT report.