Brown engineering

Submitted: Aug 04, 2017
Badlands Journal editorial board


There is no state in the union or place in the world more dependent on hydraulic engineering than California, which is why the wave of doubt caused by the very serious problems with the Oroville Dam is so unusual that it is nearly unthinkable.

For generations, California universities have been producing engineers to develop every aspect of the natural environment of our state for the profit of those with the capital to take advantage and transform the landscape to unimaginably ugly-scapes of urban wastelands and industrial agribusiness -- deteriorating tracts and cows knee-deep in their own manure.

To imagine that hydraulic engineering might have actually failed to control the Feather River is no problem for Californians old enough to remember the stories of fishermen of a previous generation risking their lives in the annual fly-fishing adventure called "fishing the Feather." But, that generation is so old now that its members can remember having their juvenile hands shaken by former Gov. Pat Brown when he was still campaigning for state Attorney General. And that generation is no majority now.

The majority of Californians today have no idea what the Feather River could do to Marysville and Yuba City, and did do, regularly in times past. They've only heard of what the Russian River used to do, or what the great tributary rivers to the San Joaquin River did regularly in the Valley. That's because the vast alluvial fans caused by recurrent floods are no longer replenished with fresh sediments and are now, to an increasing extent, irrigated with groundwater, their immense aquifers being hollowed out to the point of collapse by a form of agriculture so immensely contemptuous of the natural resources it devours that desertification is the obvious near-term finale.

This final draw on the aquifers is also the result of hydraulic engineering, the perfection of pumps so large that any sane government would declare them illegal on environmental grounds.

Today's profits for a few agribusinessmen in the export trade of a few mono-cropped commodities are robbing future generations of the ability to farm this land. Instead of leaving the land "better than they found it," once an avowed aim of American agriculture, this form of agriculture, determined by monopoly finance capital rather than sane farming principles, ruins what it touches. And every step of the way, engineering has enhanced the capacity to exploit and degrade the land, the surface and underground water, and the lives of the communities dominated by this industry for the enrichment of a few.

For more than half a century, the Brown family, so canny and basically humane in many other areas of government and regions of the state in the long course of their liberal leadership, has be the well-paid tool of agribusiness. From obstruction of lawsuits against the Friant Dam in the early 1950's to the Delta Water Fix of today, Edmund G. "Pat" and Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown were there, as state attorneys general as governors, handmaidens to the immense hydraulic engineering projects that have produced what Pat Brown used to call "this wonderful Great Big Number One State of Ours."

You bet! -- blj


-- blj




San Francisco Chronicle

Oroville Dam flaws don’t bode well for tunnels, train projects

Dan Walters

Slowly — but surely — we are learning that the near-catastrophic failure of Oroville Dam’s main spillway wasn’t truly caused by weather, even though the state claims that in seeking federal aid for repairs.

Rather, it resulted from poor engineering and construction when the nation’s highest dam was rising more than a half-century ago as the centerpiece of the State Water Project, and poor maintenance since its completion.

The latest evidence is a huge report by a team of engineering experts, headed by Robert Bea and Tony Johnson of the University of California’s Center for Catastrophic Risk Management.

It concluded that the dam’s fundamental flaws were compounded by decades of neglect by the state Department of Water Resources and Division of Safety of Dams.

“The gated spillway was managed to failure by DWR and DSOD,” the damning report declared.

One of the abysmal failures cited was “the recently exposed existence of DSOD inspection reports dating back to 1989. For reasons yet to be fully determined, identified deficiencies were either ignored, treated as low priority, not acted upon or a combination thereof.”

The 124-page report added that “complacency, lack of industry standard level maintenance, and possibly pressure from internal DWR management and external State Water Contractors’representatives to hold down maintenance costs were key contributors.”

Finally, and most ominously, the study team suggested that Oroville’s problems are not confined to the spillway, whose collapse last February led to the near-failure of an auxiliary spillway, a threat of failure in the dam itself, and widespread evacuations of those living along the Feather River north of Sacramento.

The Bea-Johnson report says the dam may be “facing a breach danger from a serious and dangerous form of a slow-motion failure mode.”

DWR has insisted all along that despite the spillway failure, the earthen-fill dam itself is “sound and safe.”

Shoddy engineering and design and neglectful maintenance are serious business. If what the other experts say is accurate, it may explain why state officials from Gov. Jerry Brown downward have been so closed-mouthed about what went wrong.

If it wasn’t the weather, but human error, that created the problem, then the state’s plea for federal aid is bogus.

But there’s an even more pertinent question raised by the Bea-Johnson study — whether the state is even capable of competently building and maintaining huge public works projects.

One recalls the more recent example of the Oakland Bay Bridge. It not only took a quarter-century to design and build the replacement, but costs wound up four times their original estimate and after it was completed, it was revealed that there were major construction flaws that the Department of Transportation didn’t disclose but investigative journalism by the Sacramento Bee exposed. When asked about it, Brown infamously replied, “S— happens.”

Meanwhile, Brown wants the state to build two more mega-projects — the delta tunnels and the bullet train. If Oroville Dam and the Bay Bridge set the standard, maybe those new projects are disasters waiting to happen.

Dan Walters is a columnist for CALmatters, a public interest journalism venture. Go to


Chico Enterprise Record

Oroville Dam’s ‘green spot’ raises new worries

Risa Johnson

OROVILLE — A new report from a UC Berkeley group researching what caused the Lake Oroville spillway to fail in February is concerned that a green spot on the nation’s tallest dam might mean it is leaking.

This is not the first time the “green spot” on the southern end of Oroville Dam has been brought up. It has been discussed at community meetings, where state Department of Water Resources officials have said it is caused by rain or is a natural spring.

Robert Bea and his team at UC Berkeley are far from convinced. Bea is a professor emeritus at UC Berkeley and a risk management expert who has been recognized by the U.S. Senate for his review of disaster management following the BP oil spill and Hurricane Katrina.

He said a lot of thought went into deciding when to publish the findings, if at all. He understands the unease residents are likely to feel from reading about the report, but in his opinion, the DWR’s explanation for the spot warrants posing the question publicly.

 “The consequences of not getting the right answer are very high,” Bea said. “I don’t think anyone should encourage a casual approach.”

DWR officials have addressed the spot of vegetation before, chalking it up to the rainy season or calling it a natural spring. Bea said those claims are both problematic.

For one, he said, the green area was there for years, including during the drought, not solely wet periods. If caused by rain, it shouldn’t be concentrated in one spot. There should be other green spots all around the dam, the authors of the report noted.

As to the claim the spot is a natural spring, the vegetation does not follow a normal path, Bea said — streams do not go uphill. It is also expanding in a “near perfect” horizontal direction, the report states.

“So why are reputable DWR engineers and representatives giving answers that are easily refuted?” the report asks. “Worse, these answers infer a demonstration of a lack of engineering competency.”

To show the organization is taking the issue seriously, it should fix the dam’s out-of-commission internal piezometers, which measure the pressure of water, test the wet spot, analyze the results and release the findings, he said.

“I’ve got to find out what the patient is sick from,” Bea said.

Based upon the information available, the concern is that the wet spot indicates it could be caused by something called differential settlement, which would likely lead to a failure of the structure, he said.

Differential settlement can occur when soil under the foundation shifts. The foundation settles unequally and can cause cracks to form.

“And water likes cracks,” Bea said.

The group is concerned that if uncontrolled seepage is happening in the Oroville Dam, it could be in danger of a breach. DWR did drill the spot in 2016, inspection records show. Bea questioned why the organization was excavating there if it knew the spot was from rainfall.

In response to the report, Erin Mellon with the Natural Resources Agency, which oversees DWR, maintained the vegetation is caused by rain.

“These green spots were first noticed just after construction of the dam when there wasn’t even water in the reservoir,” Mellon said. “The preliminary finding from DWR’s inspections and studies show that this is an area that collects water from rainfall, causing vegetation to grow. However, DWR will continue to work with regulating agencies to completely resolve this issue.”

She added that the organization was working on a preliminary report explaining the green spot, which would be made public.

The Oroville Dam Advisory Group, a 15-member team at UC Berkeley, says it has put approximately 3,000 hours of work into analyzing what caused the Oroville Dam spillways to fail. It has received input from former engineers, operators and managers for DWR, concerned citizens and senior faculty.

“These people willingly volunteered their knowledge, experience, documentation and advice as very important resources that have been integrated into this report,” the report states.

Bea and Tony Johnson, co-authors of the report, work with the university’s Center for Catastrophic Risk Management.

Another independent group, the forensic team, is analyzing the root causes of the spillway crisis. Its final report will be released this fall.

DWR has set Nov. 1 as the deadline for this season’s construction work on the spillway. Once high water in the lake stops work, reconstruction will begin in the spring or summer.



Sacramento Bee

California orders closer look at these 93 dams after Oroville crisis

By Dale Kasler And Ryan Sabalow


California officials have ordered owners of 93 dams to reinspect their flood-control spillways following the Oroville Dam crisis, saying the spillways need a closer look following a preliminary review.

The list released by the Department of Water Resources includes some of the largest dams in California, such as the New Exchequer Dam on the Merced River, New Bullards Bar on the Yuba River, and Lake Almanor Dam on the Feather River in Plumas County. Each holds back reservoirs roughly the size of Folsom Lake, which can store about 977,000 acre-feet of water.

Also on the list is New Don Pedro Dam, on the Tuolumne River, which is about twice the size of Folsom and contains the sixth largest reservoir in California.

DWR’s list also features scores of obscure facilities, including two owned along the American River by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District: Ice House and Union Valley dams.

The 93 dams represent less than 10 percent of the 1,250 dams overseen by the Department of Water Resources’ dam safety division.

DWR said the probes were ordered in recognition of the emergency at Oroville, which prompted a mass evacuation, and the fact that California’s dams are 70 years old on average.

Preliminary assessments showed each of the spillways on the list “may have potential geologic, structural or performance issues that could jeopardize its ability to safely pass a flood event,” according to letters the dam-safety division sent to the dam owners. “Therefore, we are requesting that you perform a comprehensive condition assessment of the spillway as soon as possible.”

DWR officials have been notifying the owners of the affected dams since June. The complete list was released Thursday by the agency.

“It will not be known which spillways, if any, will need repairs until the comprehensive assessments are completed and reviewed by (the dam-safety division),” DWR said in a note accompanying the list. “Dam owners of these spillways have been directed to perform any needed maintenance repairs prior to the next flood season. (The division) has already received immediate responses from many dam owners in compliance with the notice.”

Calvin Curtin of Turlock Irrigation District, which co-owns New Don Pedro, said the district already conducted several inspections last winter, before and after the Oroville emergency, and “found no items of concern.” Nonetheless, the district will comply with the state’s order and is preparing for an in-depth look at the geologic conditions beneath New Don Pedro.

“We don’t believe the same conditions exist here that exist at Oroville,” Curtin said.

SMUD engineer Dudley McFadden said the Sacramento utility will conduct intensive inspections at Ice House and Union Valley next month, with a particular emphasis on the “geology underneath the spillway.” He said preliminary inspections in April showed some “areas of concrete are starting to peel off” but in general the two facilities are in good shape. Union Valley is SMUD’s largest dam, guarding a reservoir about one-fourth the size of Folsom Lake.

At least one of the dams on DWR’s list has attracted attention from area residents. Robert Eberhardt, a Chico X-ray technician, grew concerned when he was boating on Lake Almanor on the Feather River earlier this year and examined Almanor’s spillway.

He said the spillway appeared to be crumbling in places. Photos he shot with his cellphone and shared with The Sacramento Bee appear to show cracks, places where cracks had been filled but the fill material was crumbling away, and even a small cedar tree growing out of the concrete. The lake can hold 1.3 million acre-feet of water, or 300,000 acre-feet more than Folsom.

Eberhardt said he feared that if the spillway was ever used, it could wash away and threaten the integrity of the main earthen dam.

“The entire lake would drain into Oroville Lake and it would happen overnight,” Eberhardt said.

A 2016 annual inspection report compiled by the Division of Safety of Dams noted some “freeze-thaw” damage to the concrete floor, but inspectors said the chute walls were stable and “the structure remains in satisfactory condition for continued use.”

The dam is owned by Pacific Gas and Electric Company, which has been monitoring “surface damage on the floor of the spillway,” said utility spokesman Denny Boyles. The damage has been caused by water seepage and “affects only the upper surface of the concrete and has not progressed to the point where repairs are necessary,” he said.

“PG&E has inspected these areas and will continue to monitor them for evidence of further deterioration,” Boyles said in an email. “If and when repairs become necessary, PG&E will repair the damaged areas as part of its regular maintenance program.”

In Thursday’s report, the state identified 11 other PG&E dams besides Almanor as needing further examination. Boyles said the utility is performing those inspections, following “in-depth evaluations we conducted this winter.”

“Our inspections to date have not identified any issues that require urgent repairs,” he said.

When it comes to Almanor, at least one local official isn’t particularly worried. Sherrie Thrall, a Plumas County supervisor, told The Bee that Almanor’s spillway wasn’t needed this year or even during the huge storms of 1997 that flooded wide swaths of the Sacramento Valley. She said if water was ever sent down the spillway, there would be so much, the town of Chester would be underwater. The spillway and dam also survived a nearby earthquake that registered 5.7 on the Richter Scale in 2013.

A 2014 inspection report noted that the dam’s main outlet, a structure separate from the spillway, was inspected after the earthquake and showed no apparent problems.

Federal and state officials have openly talked for months about toughening inspection programs following the near disaster at Oroville.

“One thing we all have in common is that we didn’t predict this happening,” said Frank Blackett, a regional engineer at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, in a speech in Sacramento in May.

David Gutierrez, a DWR consultant and former chief of the dam-safety division, said routine annual inspections generally aren’t able to detect the types of problems that were lurking at the Oroville spillway. “We’re trying to find the obvious issues,” he said in an interview in June. “It’s a visual inspection. You’re climbing things. You’re not X-raying.”

Oroville’s crisis began when a giant crater opened in the main spillway Feb. 7. DWR officials throttled back water releases to limit the damage, but a heavy rainstorm filled Lake Oroville and water began spilling over the adjacent emergency spillway for the first time in the lake’s 48-year history. When it appeared the emergency spillway might fail, officials ordered the immediate evacuation of 188,000 downstream residents. DWR quickly ramped up releases over the main spillway, arresting the flow of water over the emergency structure, and lake levels fell. The evacuation order was lifted two days later.

The exact cause of the crater has yet to be determined. An independent forensic team has cited two-dozen possible factors but won’t finish its investigation until this fall.



The list of 93 dams that must reinspect their flood-control spillways:

Show  entries


Dam name

Dam owner

Almaden Dam

Santa Clara Valley Water District

Antelope Dam

California Department of Water Resources

Beardsley Dam

Tri-Dam Project

Bell Canyon Dam

City of Saint Helena

Big Creek Dam

Pine Mountain Lake Association

Bishop Creek Intake No. 2 Dam

Southern California Edison

Briones Dam

East Bay Municipal Utility District

Butt Valley Dam

Pacific Gas and Electric Company

Calero Dam

Santa Clara Valley Water District

Camanche Dam

East Bay Municipal Utility District

Dam name

Dam owner

Castaic Dam

California Department of Water Resources

Cedar Springs Dam

California Department of Water Resources

Chabot Dam

East Bay Municipal Utility District

Cherry Valley Dam

San Francisco Public Utilities Commission

Cogswell Dam

Los Angeles Department of Public Works

Conn Creek Dam

City of Napa

Courtright Dam

Pacific Gas and Electric Company

Coyote Dam

Santa Clara Valley Water District

Crane Valley Dam

Pacific Gas and Electric Company

Del Valle Dam

California Department of Water Resources

Don Pedro Dam

Turlock Irrigation District

Donnells Dam

Tri-Dam Project

El Capitan Dam

City of San Diego

Elmer J. Chesbro Dam

Santa Clara Valley Water District

Florence Lake Dam

Southern California Edison

Frenchman Dam

California Department of Water Resources

Gibraltar Dam

City of Santa Barbara

Grizzly Valley Dam

California Department of Water Resources

Guadelupe Dam

Santa Clara Valley Water District

Hernandez Dam

San Benito County Water District

Dam name

Dam owner

Huntington Lake 1 Dam

Southern California Edison

Ice House Dam

Sacramento Municipal Utility District

Indian Valley Dam

Yolo County Flood Control and Water Conservation District

Iron Canyon Dam

Pacific Gas and Electric Company

Iron Gate Dam


Jackson Meadows Dam

Nevada Irrigation District

James L. Lenihan Dam

Santa Clara Valley Water District

James Turner Dam

City and County of San Francisco

Lake Almanor Dam

Pacific Gas and Electric Company

Lake Curry Dam

City of Vallejo

Dam name

Dam owner

Lake Fordyce Dam

Pacific Gas and Electric Company

Lake Hemet Dam

Lake Hemet Municipal Water District

Lake Hodges Dam

City of San Diego

Lake Spaulding Dam

Pacific Gas and Electric Company

Leroy Anderson Dam

Santa Clara Valley Water District

Little Grass Valley Dam

South Feather Water and Power Agency

Long Valley Dam

City of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power

Lopez Dam

San Luis Obispo County Flood Control and Water Conservation District

Los Padres Dam

California American Water Company

Magalia Dam

Paradise Irrigation District

Dam name

Dam owner

Main Strawberry Dam

Pacific Gas and Electric Company

Mark Edson Dam

Georgetown Divide Public Utility District

Mathews Dam

Metropolitan Water District of Southern California

McCloud Dam

Pacific Gas and Electric Company

McSwain Dam

Merced Irrigation District

Morena Dam

City of San Diego

Nacimiento Dam

Monterey County Water Resources Agency

New Bullards Bar Dam

Yuba County Water Agency

New Exchequer Dam

Merced Irrigation District

New Upper San Leandro Dam

East Bay Municipal Utility District

Dam name

Dam owner

Newell Dam

City of Santa Cruz

North Fork Dam

Pacheco Pass Water District

O'Shaughnessy Dam

San Francisco Public Utilities Commission

Paradise Dam

Paradise Irrigation District

Peters Dam

Marin Municipal Water District

Puddingstone Dam

Los Angeles Department of Public Works

Pyramid Dam

California Department of Water Resources

Rector Creek Dam

California Department of Veteran Affairs

Robert A Skinner Dam

Metropolitan Water District of Southern California

Robert W. Matthews Dam

Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District

Rollins Dam

Nevada Irrigation District

Salt Springs Dam

Pacific Gas and Electric Company

San Andreas Dam

City and County of San Francisco

San Antonio Dam

Monterey County Water Resources Agency

San Pablo Dam

East Bay Municipal Utility District

Santiago Creek Dam

Serrano Water District & Irvine Ranch Water District

Savage (Lower Otay) Dam

City of San Diego

Scotts Flat Dam

Nevada Irrigation District

Seeger Dam

Marin Municipal Water District

Shaver Lake Dam

Southern California Edison

Dam name

Dam owner

Sly Creek Dam

South Feather Water and Power Agency

Sly Park Dam

El Dorado Irrigation District

Soulajule Dam

Marin Municipal Water District

Stevens Creek Dam

Santa Clara Valley Water District

Sugar Pine Dam

Foresthill Public Utility District

Tiger Creek Regulator Dam

Pacific Gas and Electric Company

Tulloch Dam

Tri-Dam Project

Union Valley Dam

Sacramento Municipal Utility District

Uvas Dam

Santa Clara Valley Water District

Vermilion Valley Dam

Southern California Edison

Villa Park Dam

City of Orange

Whale Rock Dam

Whale Rock Commission

Wishon Dam

Pacific Gas and Electric Company





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