Weather Threatens Oroville Dam Emergency Efforts

As measures are taken to repair a damaged spillway at the Oroville Dam in Northern California, weather forecasters are calling for rain later this week. Almost 200,000 people were evacuated from their homes below the dam, the largest in the country, on Feb. 12 as erosion of the dam’s emergency spillway threatened to flood the towns below.

While the situation was said to have stabilized on Sunday morning, conditions worsened and evacuation orders were issued. Roads in the area quickly backed up as a result, according to reports.

The dam’s main spillway was damaged after a winter season of record rains and snows following years of drought in the state.

Photo: California Department of Water Resources

California Representative John Garamendi told MSNBC that the evacuation was essential. “Fortunately when they were able to open the main spillway gates. That began to lower the reservoir level, because the water coming into the reservoir was about half of what they were able to expel down the main spillway, so it’s stabilized.”

The next issue, he said, is whether the spillway can be patched up “sufficiently to weather the storms that are clearly ahead of us.” Garamendi added that the months of March and April are the heavy storm season in the state.

Sheriff Kory Honea of Butte County said at a press conference that the Department of Water Resources (DWR) reported that the dam’s erosion is not advancing as rapidly as they thought. He said a plan is in place to plug the hole in the spillway by dropping large bags of rocks by helicopter. The DWR said that another measure being taken to relieve pressure on the spillway has been to raise the rate of discharge water from 55,000 cubic feet per second to 100,000 cfs, which it said has been working.

Helicopters transport large bags of rocks from the Oroville Dam parking lot, to the erosion site at the Oroville Dam auxiliary spillway in California, to help fight further erosion, February 13, 2017. Oroville is in Butte County. Florence Low / California Department of Water Resources

The New York Times reported that Northern California is close to 225% above normal rainfall levels since Oct. 1. According to the Times:

Repeated rounds of rain have pounded the area in recent weeks, rapidly raising the water level at Lake Oroville, the second-largest reservoir in California and a linchpin of the state’s water system. On Tuesday, a gaping hole opened in the main spillway that is used to release extra water. Early Saturday, an adjacent emergency spillway was also put into use, the first time water flowed over it since the dam was finished in 1968, department officials said.

State officials have said the 770-foot Oroville Dam itself, the nation’s tallest, is sound.

The problems with Oroville Dam are not a surprise to some. In 2005, during a relicensing process for the dam, three environmental groups warned the DWR of potential dangers with the emergency spillway, which is not a concrete spillway, but a concrete lip with a dirt hillside below. The concern was that the hillside could be easily eroded in the case of an emergency.

The Washington Post reported:

The upgrade would have cost millions of dollars and no one wanted to foot the bill, said Ronald Stork, senior policy advocate for Friends of the River, one of the groups that filed the motion.

“When the dam is overfull, water goes over that weir and down the hillside, taking much of the hillside with it,” Stork told The Washington Post. “That causes huge amounts of havoc. There’s roads, there’s transmission lines, power lines that are potentially in the way of that water going down that auxiliary spillway.”

Federal officials, however, determined that nothing was wrong and the emergency spillway, which can handle 350,000 cubic feet of water per second, “would perform as designed” and sediment resulting from erosion would be insignificant, according to a July 2006 memo from John Onderdonk, then a senior civil engineer for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Garamendi said that “What happened with the widening of the sinkhole was the result of someone overlooking the problems, including the fact that there was no concrete apron on the spillway.”

He also noted that while there will most likely be federal dollars to help rebuild the dam, “This is just one really startling, quite tragic and potentially catastrophic example of what’s happened to the infrastructure across America. We’ve seen bridges collapse in Minnesota, we’ve seen them on I-5 in Washington State and now this reservoir, which is the linchpin of California’s water system.”

Act Now to Prevent Frozen Water Pipes

Freezing weather can bring the unexpected, from slippery sidewalks and ice dams to one of the most common problems—frozen water pipes. Knowing what conditions can cause pipes to freeze is the first step to prevention. If pipes do freeze, a quick response can keep them from bursting, avoiding the expense of replacement, possible water damage to walls, floors and electrical systems, or even a business shutdown.

According to the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS), 37% of all frozen pipe failures occur in a structure’s basement. What’s more, pipe insulation to keep water pipes from freezing in the first place costs much less than the price of repairs.

IBHS recommends these prevention steps for businesses:
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Interstate notes that pipes are most likely to freeze in Connecticut, Maryland, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania and that a 1/8 inch crack can cause the loss of 250 gallons of water per day and damages from $2,000 to $100,000.

According to Interstate:
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If pipes freeze, Interstate recommends:
Do:

  • Turn off the water flow using the main water valve
  • Inspect the pipe carefully for cracks or damage
  • Consult a plumber for advice, if you find cracks or signs of damage (also be sure to consult a professional if you aren’t sure which pipe is frozen and/or you are unable to inspect it)
  • Thaw the pipe gradually using a hair dryer or space heater
  • Confirm the pipe has thawed by turning the main water valve back on and making sure that water flows
  • Take steps to raise the temperature in the area where the pipe froze or insulate the pipe

Don’t:

  • Use a blow torch or open flame to thaw a frozen pipe – open heat sources can cause fires and other safety hazards
  • Stand in water while you are operating an electrical heater, dryer or any appliance—you could be electrocuted

Flint Water Investigation Leads to Felony Charges for Mich. State Employees

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A driving effort to save the state money was said to be the reasoning behind the Flint, Michigan water crisis, which has been tied to lead poisoning in children, among other issues. On Tuesday the state announced felony charges against former state emergency managers, Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose, accused of false pretenses and conspiracy to commit false pretenses. The two were said to have been focused on balance sheets rather than the welfare of citizens when they made the decision in 2014 to switch the city’s water supply from treated water in Lake Huron to water from the Flint River.

A state investigation, which began in January, had led to charges against eight state officials and an employee of the Flint water facility.

According to the New York Times:

Charges of false pretenses, conspiracy to commit false pretenses, misconduct in office and willful neglect of duty lodged against the former managers were lauded by Flint leaders, some of whom said they had feared that blame for the city’s contaminated water might ultimately be pinned only on low-level workers.

The claims also reopened a longstanding debate in Michigan over the state’s emergency management provision, reviving questions about whether the system removes power and control over local issues from those residents who come under state oversight.

For years, governors here have appointed emergency managers as a way to efficiently cut debts and restore financial stability in the most troubled cities. But residents of some majority-black Michigan cities, including Flint, argue that the intense state-assigned oversight disenfranchises voters, shifts control from mostly Democratic cities to the state’s Republican-held capital and risks favoring financial discipline over public health.

After the decision was made to use water from the Flint River, Flint residents had began to notice a peculiar odor, color and taste in the water that flowed from their taps. Some reported skin rashes, hair loss and other physical problems. But they did not know why. Water from the Flint River was used by Flint residents for 18 months, but because it was not treated to reduce corrosion, lead from old plumbing leached into the water. Testing revealed dangerous levels of lead.

Residents soon discovered they had been lied to. Public officials had known about the lead but kept quiet. As a result, between 6,000 and 12,000 children were exposed to the contaminated water, which will likely have serious consequences for their health.

Meanwhile, efforts to fix the problem are underway. State officials switched back to the original water source in October. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has estimated that replacing the more than 15,000 lead service lines in Flint would take $60 million and up to 15 years.

Water Scarcity Risk: Not Just a Local Political Issue

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There are few issues as politically charged as water, not only because people’s survival depends on it, but also because it is a critical component of so many industries. Agriculture, food and beverage manufacturers, refineries, paper and pulp companies, electronics manufacturers, mining operations and power plants—are of these rely on a continuous and reliable water supply.

When companies move into markets with weak infrastructure or questionable rule of law, drawing on these resources can quickly bring them into conflict with local citizens and, sometimes, the host government. Because of its vital importance, however, water scarcity has become much more than a local issue for businesses.

Water shortages can lead to conflict as competition grows for diminishing resources, as any scarce resource on which people depend is likely to become political at some point in time. One scenario that repeatedly unfolds is as follows: A mining operation depletes local water resources or has a tailings dam accident that contaminates a local river, a protest ensues and the host government intervenes in the project. Hydroelectric power projects can create a number of similar political risks and some different ones, including relocation of local villages.

In recent years, however, awareness has grown about how water scarcity risk affects political risk at the national and international levels, requiring a different type of analysis. The depletion of rivers, lakes and streams has led to more dependence on below-ground water. More than two-thirds of groundwater used around the world is for irrigating crops, and the rest of below-ground water is used to supply cities’ drinking water. For centuries, below-ground water supplies served as a backup to carry regions and countries through droughts and warm winters that lacked enough snowmelt to replenish rivers and streams. Now, the world’s largest underground water reserves in Africa, Eurasia and the Americas are under stress, with many of them being drawn down at unsustainable rates. Nearly two billion people rely on groundwater that is considered under threat.

What makes the problem particularly difficult to solve in the emerging markets is that small, often subsistence, farmers are doing the drilling for water. The U.S. military called climate change, including reduced access to water, a “threat multiplier,” potentially threatening the stability of governments, increasing inter-state conflict, and contributing to extremist ideologies and terrorism.

It is always difficult to establish causality with something as complex as politics, but there certainly is circumstantial evidence that water scarcity was a factor in the Syrian uprisings that led to the country’s civil war. In Yemen, some hydrologists warn the country may be the first to actually run out of usable water within a decade, and combatants are making a bad situation even worse by using water and food as weapons against opposing villages. In Sudan, desertification and water scarcity have been cited as having a strong link to the Darfur conflict.

Since water does not respect political borders, the conflicts can become international.  One of the most high-profile disputes has been Ethiopia’s damming of the Nile River for hydroelectric power, potentially threatening Egypt’s ancient water source. In 2013, Egypt’s then-president said he did not want war but he would not allow Egypt’s water supply to be endangered by the dam. Fortunately, in 2015, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan signed an agreement allowing dam construction, provided that it did not cause “significant harm” to downstream countries. But the studies into how much harm it could do have not even been completed yet, and the dammed water could be diverted to uses other than power. Thus, the political risk surrounding the Nile River is far from over. Since 1975, Turkey’s construction of dams for irrigation and power have cut water flow into Syria by 40% and into Iraq by 80%, setting off disputes there.

Companies are accustomed to building water into their business plans in developing countries. Environmental impact assessments and proactive community relations programs can bring potential problems to the surface before they start, helping companies manage water in an environmentally and socially prudent manner. The geopolitical risks around water scarcity can be more difficult to manage, however. In this area, companies should consider building water scarcity into their political risk management and forecasting frameworks, factoring it in when making investment and supply chain decisions. If governments cannot find ways of sharing this limited resource, political violence risk may become even more of a factor for international businesses to consider.

This article previously appeared on Zurichna.com.