With the Oroville Dam, in Northern California, (the tallest dam in the U.S.) apparently in danger of imminent failure, potentially inundating the homes of more than 16,000 people, the state has gone from a prolonged state of drought emergency to a situation where they are praying for it not to rain.
Indeed, emergency declarations in fifty California counties aimed at flood assistance stand testament to this spectacular reversal. With storms predicted in the week to come, state officials are scrambling to fix the dam’s eroding spillway. There are real fears that a cascade of structural failures could see one of the states most valuable water storage assets wiped out in a torrent.
The about-turn in California’s hydro-misfortunes has followed the subsidence of La Nina conditions which have caused the reduced rainfall in the Pacific Southwest. It has subsequently lead to increasing calls to rescind emergency drought regulations in the state.
However, groundwater aquifers, forests, and endangered fish species may take several years to recover from the impacts of the drought. Longer-term trends pointing towards further droughts and more frequent extreme weather mean that, as Peter Gleick points out, the question of whether the drought is over is the wrong question. Californians should be asking: Are we managing our water in a sustainable way? And, for many, the answer is ‘no.’
Far from being evidence that the water crisis is over, the evacuation of Oroville and the potential failure of the tallest dam in the U.S. is just another challenge for water resource management in California.