Tear down this dam?
© Getty Images

Oroville dam, the tallest in the nation, is currently in danger of structural failure.

Thousands living downstream from its desperate cascading water releases are evacuating their homes in Hollywood disaster-film fashion. Something premodern and apocalyptic like this was not supposed to have happened in a postmodern California of Google, Hollywood, and Napa Valley wineries.

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California’s politicians and pundits in recent years of drought swore the state was entering a cycle of permanent drought (and thus saw no need to start construction on a single dam to store the rain and snow that supposedly would not return). Instead, they warned of the “settled science” of climate change and the need for permanent conservation and restrictions—even as near record storms this year have pushed California’s snow and rain levels in many places to over 200 percent of normal, well beyond the ability of our now ossified water projects to store the deluge that heads out to sea.

 

Oroville, along with its twin Shasta dam, anchors California's vast water transfer system, the largest and most ingeniously designed in the world. But Oroville’s half-century-old and now damaged spillways were in dire need of maintenance, especially given that auxiliary dams in the region envisioned to alleviate the pressure on Oroville were long ago cancelled. Indeed, the entire California Water Project and federal Central Valley Project were never finished, even as California’s population more than doubled.

After the early 1980s, the state’s politicians and courts decided that dams, as one critic put it, were “a relic of the Industrial Age, a brute-force solution to water scarcity.” They forget that they had been a staple of civilization since the Mycenaean Greeks built them to ward off flood and drought.

Californians also forgot that our forefathers saw in the state’s northern and mountain dams and their subsidiary aqueducts and canals a brilliant solution to the California paradox of two thirds of the population wishing to work and live where one third of the state’s annual rain and snow fell.

After all, so far Stanford University has not been willing to relocate to Crescent City. Facebook has no desire to move to Marysville; and the hipsters of San Francisco do not prefer the weather in Redding. Malibu stars are not likely to transfer their beach residents to the coast at Humboldt. The key to California’s water solutions was that it was among both the wettest and driest of states, and thus was the sole arbiter of its water destiny, without endless poly-state rivalries and feuds that plague the transference and distribution of the waters of the Colorado River. 

Dam supporters today are written off by cool greens as hopelessly anachronistic and deprecated as “water buffalos.” Yet a wiser California public has consistently voted for more dam construction, only to be stymied by Byzantine and politicized bureaucracies and a flood of lawsuits. 

Working people appreciate in dams and reservoirs a brilliant symbiosis that today’s elites miss entirely. California’s system of dams, if they had been finished and well maintained, all but ended the annual winter and spring nightmares of flooding, which one took thousands of lives in northern and mountainous California and made flood basins unlivable—until a prescient generation in the late 19th and 20th century began building what would become a vast network of some 1300 reservoirs. 

No wonder hoi polloi favored dam construction. Those without money to vacation at California’s touristy coast escaped the heat of the Central Valley by driving up to fish, swim in, and camp out by the clean mountain water of hundreds of often alpine and picturesque man-made lakes. 

California’s dams also turned millions of desert acres of the Central Valley into a verdant belt of the most productive farmland in the world. Hydroelectric projects—that likewise were largely ended when new dam construction was cancelled—once made California’s energy the cleanest and among the most affordable in the country. 

But the best barometer of the dams’ importance was the fact that for all the threats of tearing them down, even the greenest of California politicians quietly accepted that without a Oroville, Shasta, or Hetch Hetchy there would be no Silicon Valley, Hollywood, Stanford, or Cal Tech—all situated in an ideal Mediterranean climate and landscape to which millions of people flocked only after water was imported to support them. In crude reductionist terms, the teeming San Fernando Valley and Santa Barbara wants the water that rural Oroville wants to get rid of.

But if our generation could not quite tear dams down, environmentalists managed to stop the spread of them, ensuring that the third phase of the state’s water projects was never built, robbing California of millions of acre feet of water storage which in a wet year like 2017 would have provided stored water to tide over the next drought. After, all a state of 15 million people built the water projects, and a contemporary California of 40 million paradoxically swore it would build no more. even as it was silently grateful for the inherence of its far sighted forefathers.

On occasion, environmentalists have rightly urged more maintenance on the dams spillways, but largely to ensure that reservoir waters could be safely and efficiently drawn down and emptied when lawsuits forced water releases for fish restoration, bay area fresh-water infusions, and wild river runs to the ocean.

These were new agendas never envisioned by the original architects of the system, who saw human needs solved by flood relief, irrigation, recreation, and power generation first, and salmon swimming from the sea to the Sierra second. The dams were a tough tradeoff between progress and nature: an arid state that would grow to 40 million would have artificial but beautiful reservoirs—but not white water rapids of a once pristine and scarcely populated 19th-century paradise.

How does our generation stack up to the that of the dam builders and “water buffalos”? Contemporary California has among the country’s highest basket of fuel, income and sales taxes and yet is facing another billion-dollar-plus annual budget deficit. Its schools and roads are rated near last in the nation. Its coveted high-speed rail project has not laid a foot of track as costs balloon to an envisioned $100 billion. Never have so many incompetents of the present been so critical of so few geniuses of the past.

It is symptomatic of the present generation’s hubris and historical ignorance that it ridicules the logic of a prior generation’s infrastructure that it gladly inherited and uses but will not well maintain and expand—even as its own legacy is one of an increasing pyramidal state that is home to the greatest number of the nation’s poor and rich—and increasingly few in between. Californians have become squatters of sorts on an infrastructure that others built. 

Pie-in-the-sky calls for a network of coastal desalination plants miss the ancient logic of dams and reservoirs. Desalination demands energy to make modest amounts of water; gravity powered mountain runoff behind dams creates vast amounts of stored water that produces rather than consumes electrical power. A desalinization plant is ugly; a Huntington Lake is stunning. Lakes and canals are cool; sea-water conversion plants generate heat. Pumping water into the ground makes sense; but it works best when most runoff is first banked and stored for later release rather than simply let out to flood to the ocean. 

The cracks on the face of Oroville Dam remind us that we have abused and caricatured what we inherited. In penance we might do better to listen to the wisdom of the past rather than to parrot the ignorance of the present.

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. Follow him on Twitter @VDHanson.


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