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The Next Oroville: California’s Ailing Levees Could Produce a Catastrophe ‘Greater Than Hurricane Katrina’

California’s failure to even barely maintain its crumbling infrastructure is a disaster movie in slo-mo. 

Water from Lake Oroville was released over the damaged spillway on Thursday to make way for even more rainwater.


If you were to drive from San Francisco to Ronald Stork’s Sacramento office right now, you’d see tree tops and utility poles poking out of the flood plains; the Cosumnes River has breached its levees following the deluge. At times, the still water, broken occasionally by floating detritus and partially submerged vegetation, stretches as far as the eye can see. It’s hard not to see this as a harbinger of what could well have happened writ large—and may yet still—as a result of trying to do infrastructure on the cheap. 

More than a dozen years ago, Stork, a flood management expert and the senior policy advocate at the group Friends of the River, told the Sacramento Bee that he had extreme misgivings about the Oroville Dam. Not only would an emergency spillway that projected millions of gallons of water down an unpaved hillside clog the waterway below with vast amounts of trees and soil, but it could also, he predicted, lead to the earth beneath the emergency spillway’s 30-foot wall giving way. If that were to happen, the resultant 30-foot-high wall of water would swamp everything in its path: levees, low-lying towns, highways, everything.  

State officials painted Stork as an alarmist. “Our facilities,” California State Water Project deputy director Raphael Torres told the Bee in ’05, “are safe during any conceivable flood event.” End of story. 

Fast-forwarding a decade and change, much of what Stork and others claimed would happen just happened. Dam operators were forced to use the emergency spillway they never thought they’d use. The specter of that 30-foot wall collapsing led to some 200,000 people being evacuated; on Tuesday that evacuation was downgraded to a mere recommendation to stay away

Reached in his Sacramento office on Tuesday, Stork, unsurprisingly, answered a wry “fair to middling” when asked how he was doing. He was, a dozen years ago, dismissed as a Cassandra. But it warrants mentioning that Cassandra was right. So was Stork. Much of what he told the newspapers many years ago—and, more so, asserted in multiple legal filings—has come to pass in an “eerily prophetic” manner. Stork confirms that this is not a wholly satisfying feeling. 

When it comes
to calling out underfunded, failing infrastructure, this state is replete with Cassandras. The most recent American Society of Civil Engineers California infrastructure report card, from 2012, reads like a horror novel—but scarier, because this isn’t a story and the authors are sober, analytical engineers. Most horror novels don’t terrify you with fiscal figures, either. Perhaps they should: “In the 1950s and ’60s, California spent 20 cents of every dollar on capital projects,” reads the report. “By the 1980s, that figure dropped to less than five cents on the dollar. Current estimates put infrastructure investment at around a penny on the dollar.”

In infrastructure, as in anything else, you get what you pay for. California’s population is surging; its infrastructure is being taxed as never before. Our infrastructure is, furthermore, aging past a reasonable point. And, finally, it is being funded less and less. With that in mind, California’s overall C grade for infrastructure is somewhat remarkable. Less positively, the state received a D in the all-important category of “levees/flood control.” That’s up from an F in 2006, “but it’s still a failing grade, as far as I’m concerned,” says civil engineer Yazdan Emrani, one of the report card’s co-authors. 

It’s easy to lose focus when reading a compendium of infrastructure assessments. But the scenarios discussed here rise to the level of national disasters; they are the descriptions of the pictures we now need little help in imagining. And, worse yet, they’re not even unlikely. It’s hard to overstate the severity of what a levee failure would mean for California. Here it is in the language of the aforementioned sober, analytical engineers: 

• “A catastrophic failure of any one of the levee systems in the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta carries with it the very real potential to be a mega-disaster greater than Hurricane Katrina caused in New Orleans.” 

• A major earthquake “would cause a catastrophic levee failure that would allow saltwater from San Francisco Bay to stream into the Delta, jeopardizing the drinking water for more than 20 million people in the state and contaminating irrigation water sources for over three million acres of our most productive agricultural land.”

• The Central Valley earthen levees protecting the water supply of 23 million Californians were “originally built ... by farmers working without engineering designs or supervision.”

To even maintain our flood control systems at their current grade-D level will require an investment of billions of dollars a year for many years. To improve them to an even middling grade of safety and well-being would require much, much more. These are the cold, hard facts. This is what the experts have told us and the papers have reported. This is the situation before the first raindrop falls. 

Cities and states
establish capital plans. Earthquakes and floods don’t. Barring heavy spending on remedial matters, disasters everyone knows will come to pass will, indeed, come to pass. But even in the richest cities in the richest states, there’s never enough money to go around; there’s a good reason for not fixing the things we know will break. Or are already broken.  

A dozen years ago, the formal filings regarding the Oroville Dam made by Stork and others were not well received. “We were basically patted on the head,” he says, “and told, ‘There, there, don’t worry. Go out and play in the yard. Don’t bother us again.’” 

The dam’s operators, he says, simply didn’t want to spend the money. Now they’ll have to spend a lot of it. That’s the nature of the vast investment in infrastructure our forbears made in this state and this nation. Once a piece of vital infrastructure wears out, you can’t just throw it away and buy a new one. It must be maintained, and that’s costly. But not as costly as failing to maintain it. Stork’s nonprofit is not hugely enamored with dams. “But if you’re going to have one, you must take it seriously. They are very dangerous things.”  

“This is not a time to be saying ‘I told you so,’” continues the man who accurately predicted the Oroville Dam’s weakness. “It’s a time to just hike up our pants and make a safe dam. It’s gonna cost a lotta money. State water contractors are gonna be on the hook for that. Water will be more expensive. It’ll be inconvenient. But what choice do you have? It’s not kosher to risk lives and property in four or five Northern California counties just so water bills in Los Angeles are cheaper.” 

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