Climate Change in California Produces Drought and Periods of Extreme Flooding Indicated by Oroville Dam Spill

February 13, 2018

Much of the focus of climate change in California has revolved around the impacts of drought and the probability of water shortages affecting the agriculture industry. Such hysteria has led to mandated water curtailment by private citizens as well as large-scale regulatory overhaul of groundwater in California under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Conversely, climate change not only brings periods of extreme drought, but it follows with periods of extreme precipitation, which is often intensified by the drought (since the subsided ground is not able to absorb water at previous rates).

Climate change models predict cycles of long extreme droughts, followed by intense rain events. California must adapt its infrastructure and legal regimes to account for these extreme situations, which may become more common in the future.

In late 2016, California was caught off guard by this trend (evidenced by the partial collapse and spill of the Oroville Dam north of Sacramento triggering major evacuations across northern California) and is working on both the legal repercussions of the events and looking for solutions to prevent future problems. The main problem identified is that California does not have adequate infrastructure in place to deal with massive rainfall potential. Along with litigation being brought against the California Department of Water Resources for alleged mismanagement of the dam, the state must investigate other dams and water resource facilities for their capacity and likelihood of failure in periods of intense rainfall similar to those seen at Oroville.
This two-sided planning based on uncertain climate forecasts is a daunting task for the state, but it is essential if California wants to maintain their agriculture industry which dominates the market of the United States. Massive investment in improved dam infrastructure, and more comprehensive pipelines that can transfer water out of dams, combined with a larger more effective water banking may provide a solution to increasing potential capacity of existing dams in the short run. Large scale solutions, which are meant to combat drought would also be effective in this instance, such as the Cal Water Fix project, which is meant to upgrade pipelines to more efficiently transport water in areas in need during drought. The same project could effectively siphon water from the stressed dams in times of need in order to prevent another disaster on the Scale of Oroville.