Last year, the American Southwest was amid a drought so severe, it left some questioning the logistics behind maintaining such sprawling cities in such an arid region. Residents of California and surrounding states looked to the skies in shared hope; without a significant increase in rainfall, their homes and ways of life would face dramatic changes. Then, as though the heavens chose to answer the pleas of California residents, the skies began to open up and reservoirs and basins filled once more. But the skies didn’t stop, and on Monday, the Department of Defense announced that they are prepared to assist in evacuation and rescue operations in Northern California as a failing dam struggles to restrain the immense amount of water threatening its surrounding community.
“The dam is failing, and evacuation orders have been given to close to 200,000 people in the area,” Navy Captain Jeff Davis said in an announcement on Monday. “While the [water] depths are reported to be decreasing, we do note that rain is expected later this week.”
According to Davis, who serves as a spokesman for the Defense Department, the U.S. Northern Command (NorthCom) is coordinating with the California National Guard and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in preparation for the possibility of a serious dam failure that could place the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans in danger.
The Oroville Dam, the tallest such structure in the United States, continues to hold, but its emergency spillway suffered serious damage only identified last week. The damaged spillway prompted an immediate evacuation order for cities and counties surrounding Lake Oroville. A complete failure of the dam could result in a wall of water, thirty feet high, cascading down the river bed and through surrounding communities.
The erosion-caused damage to the dam’s emergency spillway is currently a gouge 250 feet long and 170 feet wide, reaching depths of 40 to 50 feet. Currently, there are no plans in place that could repair the damaged spillway, though it hasn’t been needed in its entire forty-eight-year history. The emergency spillway is only there in the event water levels should reach 901 feet in elevation – a natural feat the dam has never seen until this weekend.
“If the dam should break, there are FEMA, California National Guard and DoD personnel who will all be prepared to respond,” Davis told reporters. “We are leaning forward and are ready to assist if needed.”
The entire California National Guard, composed of more than 23,000 service members, has been placed on alert status, and the DoD has dispatched liaison officers to state emergency operations centers.
“The goal is to get the lake to drop 50 feet. If we can continue to do that, that brings a little bit of calm to what we’re trying to accomplish here,” said Kevin Lawson, California Fire incident commander. The main spillway is currently wide open and releasing 100,000 cubic feet of water per second in an effort to reduce pressure, nearly twice it’s normal spillway capacity of 55,000 cubic feet of water per second, but the prospect of more rain later this week could mean disaster for the dam and its surrounding communities.
“When you start to erode the ground, the dirt and everything else starts to roll off the hill,” Lawson said. “It starts to undermine itself. If that is not addressed, if that’s not mitigated properly, essentially what we’re looking at, is approximately a 30-foot wall of water,” he added.
Teams are currently unable to reach the emergency spillway to attempt to begin repairs, but the current weather forecast calls for more rain on Wednesday, making the timeline for any real repair operations nearly impossible.
“We recognize that one of our most solemn duties is to assist the American people in their greatest time of need,” Captain Davis said. “While the state, first and foremost, has the responsibility for doing that, there’s a federal element, should they need it, which is ready to respond quickly.”
Image courtesy of the Associated Press