To avoid another Oroville Dam crisis, we’re going to have to spend some money

Oroville Dam’s crippled spillway is inspected via helicopter after it was shut off Monday, Feb. 27, 2017, in Oroville.
Oroville Dam’s crippled spillway is inspected via helicopter after it was shut off Monday, Feb. 27, 2017, in Oroville. AP

To prevent the next Oroville Dam crisis — or worse — we are going to have to do some things liberals hate and some things conservatives hate: We are going to have to build things, and we are going to have to spend public dollars and have more government oversight of facilities. We are going to have to take climate change seriously, but we also are going to have to increase our footprint on nature.

Is any of this possible in an age when politics seems more about tribal allegiance than solving problems if it means compromising with “them”? I have faith that in the end, even if some of our leaders and pundits consider doing so treasonous, we can come together — especially in a “purple” bellwether county like San Luis Obispo that has a tradition of moderation.

While we have been blessed with an abundance of rain this season, if we have no way of saving enough of it for an “unrainy” day, we will not be able to cope in the new climate. Our most important store of water is the snowpack, but with climate change, less precipitation will fall as snow.

In one of my first meetings as a Los Osos Community Services District director, as the district faced an unprecedented drought, I asked our staff if we were still keeping a close eye on our drainage facilities. As a California native, I know we have cycles of flood and drought. I also know that in my lifetime, they have only gotten more extreme at both ends.

Fortunately, fixing our water infrastructure for times of flood and drought doesn’t require miracle technologies or, really, anything recently invented. New storage usually means new dams and reservoirs. Critics of dams say that we’re out of places to put them and advocate for alternatives like the Yolo Bypass.

Bill Croyle of the Department of Water Resources explains that Oroville Dam's damaged main spillway remains "stable" as water officials alter the flow regimes on Monday, Feb. 20, 2017.

But new flood control basins aren’t without their own impacts. There is no environmental free lunch. The pragmatic answer is “all of the above”: We need dams, groundwater recharge, aqueducts, desalination facilities and repairs to losses from leaky pipes in the ground. We need to scrap science-free regulations on perfectly usable recycled water. At the same time, water laws should be amended to allow local governments to upgrade infrastructure to provide for existing residents without leaving them vulnerable to lawsuits forcing disorderly growth — what was a huge surplus in the past is probably just enough to get through a drought in the new climate.

In the days of the first Gov. Brown, California built things like aqueducts, universities and highways because it had a forward-facing vision. Today, we react after the fact to disaster or busting-at-the-seams demand to paper over problems because of a toxic brew of insufficient funding and a utopian vision of an impact-free use of our environment created by extreme partisanship.

As our population increases, there is no way to entirely avoid all environmental and monetary costs. Human necessities that are considered a human right — like water — have to be provided. And any efficiency we hope to gain will come from a comprehensive new solution instead of after-the-fact Band-Aid solutions to last century’s bequest of infrastructure. So, whatever your politics, you should welcome any solution, whether it comes from President Donald Trump or Gov. Jerry Brown.

Jon-Erik G. Storm is president of the Los Osos Community Services District, an attorney and a political pragmatist. He lives in Los Osos with his wife and two children.

Approximately 188,000 people were evacuated due to the threat of the emergency spillway of the Oroville Dam, the United States' tallest dam, failing and unleashing flood waters. Here's drone footage from the California Department of Water Resource