The Oroville Dam crisis, 9 months later

Last winter was one of the wettest winters in California in nearly a century.  The record rains caused significant damage to the spillway at Oroville Dam, leading to the mass ordered evacuation of nearly 200,000 people from communities downstream from the dam.  The damage to the dam prompted the first-ever use of an emergency spillway to release water from Lake Oroville.

As the start of the rainy season in California looms, here is an update on the present status of the Oroville Dam situation.

The Department of Water Resources has announced the spillway is ready for winterTotal costs of repair ended up exceeding half a billion dollars, nearly double the original estimate.  This figure only includes work done by the main contractor, Kiewit Corp., to repair the spillways.  It does not include the costs of other contractors, nor the costs of the emergency response, including the evacuation.  Furthermore, farms and residents living downstream from the Dam have filed over $1 billion in claims for damages that they blame on the deliberate releases of water to deal with the crisis.

A team of forensic experts has concluded that water entering through cracks or repair seams in the main spillway may have triggered crumbling of the spillway.  However, they have also concluded that there were a number of problems in the original construction of the dam, including thin concrete, poorly placed drains and inadequate foundations.   Their report faulted dam inspectors for relying too heavily on visual inspections of the dam, ignoring other evidence that could have warned them that the damage to the spillway was imminent.

[The leader of the forensic panel said that] Oroville was a wakeup call for dam inspectors everywhere, and urged them to go beyond the visual inspections that are typical for the industry.

Stay tuned.




Testing water for lead in Portland

I recently posted about an 11-year-old girl from Colorado who just invented a quick and easy way to test for lead in drinking water at home.  One reason this may be an important advance is that existing lead-testing methods are either inaccurate or extremely time-consuming.  Just to elaborate on this point, here are the on-line instructions for lead-testing that are provided by one city – the city of Portland – to its residents.  These instructions come with a lead sampling kit.  Not to pick on Portland, which is only one example of a municipality with a potential problem of lead contamination in its drinking water (see my last post).

With some paraphrasing:

(1)Plan a time when you let water sit in your plumbing system for 6-18 hours before collecting your sample.

(2)Stop using the water for 6-18 hours.

(3)On an information card, record time and date you stopped using your water.

(4)Collect your sample by running water into a large sports bottle until it is full, shake well, pour water from the large sports bottle into a small sports bottle, screw lid on tightly.

(5)Place small sports bottle inside a 4″ x 6″ clear bubble-lined resealable bag; seal.

(6)Complete information card, filling out time and date of collection.

(7)Place sealed bubble-lined bag and information card inside 6″ X 9″ , postage-paid envelope; seal.

(8)Return sample to the Portland Water Bureau within 7 days of collecting sample.

(9)”You should receive the analysis results within 6 weeks.”  Call the Portland Water Bureau if you have not received your results after 6 weeks.

SO:  under the prescribed official procedures, you could be using lead-contaminated water for up to 6 weeks (or more?) while waiting for your test results.

Assorted Links

Lead in Portland’s drinking water.

Rising temperatures reducing the flow of the Colorado River.

A new study by the US Geological Survey finds the river’s flow has shrunk by about seven percent over the past 30 years. As air temperature rises due to increasing emissions of greenhouse gases, more water is sucked into the atmosphere from the snowpack and the river itself instead of flowing downstream. The amount that has evaporated is equal to approximately 24 percent of the total amount of California’s annual Colorado River allocation.

Misery in slow motion: The deep and long lasting effects of drought.  New World Bank study.

The Great Salt Lake has lost half its volume

Great Salt Lake shrinking.  From overuse, not climate change.

Since 1847, the Great Salt Lake has steadily shrunk, reaching its lowest recorded level in 2016. Today, the lake is 3.6 meters below its 1847 level and just half its original volume. Previously, many researchers thought the decline—here and in other saltwater lakes—was caused by wet and dry cycles related to climate change, says Wayne Wurtsbaugh, a limnologist at Utah State University in Logan.

To test that notion, Wurtsbaugh and his colleagues recreated the climate around the Great Salt Lake for 170 years, based on historical precipitation, stream level records, and tree ring data. The records showed that precipitation and temperature patterns had hardly fluctuated during the period, meaning that the amount of water flowing into the lake from nearby streams is likely the same today as it was in 1847.

Every year, people living in the region (which includes rapidly growing Salt Lake City) divert 3.3 trillion liters of water, not from the lake itself, but from the handful of streams feeding it. With climate staying relatively stable, the team concluded that humans are triggering the decline by consuming streamwater before it replenishes the lake, they reported last week in Nature Geoscience. Although some of that water returns to the lake (for example, by soaking into the ground after irrigation), Wurtsbaugh says the new calculations show that the overall amount fell 39% from 2003 to 2012. This, in addition to long-term stream records, suggests that climate change isn’t the culprit.

A Landmark California Plan puts floodplains back in business

From News Deeply:

SOMETHING MONUMENTAL HAPPENED on August 25 in California water management that received almost no media attention: It became official policy to reconnect the state’s major rivers with their floodplains.

The action by the Central Valley Flood Protection Board … clears the way for the state to embrace projects that allow floods to recharge groundwater. This could include projects like breaching levees, building setback levees and creating flood bypass structures so rivers can inundate historic floodplains for the first time in a century.

In short, it means rivers must no longer be confined within levees as a standard practice.

The result could be not only reduced flood risk, but reviving severely depleted groundwater aquifers, restoring wildlife habitat and improving the capabilities of existing water storage reservoirs.

These projects are a major focus of the 2017 Central Valley Flood Protection Plan, which was adopted by the Board in August.

“The plan itself is an investment strategy,” Mierzwa said. “It outlines what it is we hope to achieve in both the Sacramento and San Joaquin basins within next 30 years.”

11-year-old invents lead detection method

Gitanjali Rao, an 11-year-old from Lone Tree, Colorado, has just won the annual Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge for inventing a quick, reliable way to detect lead in household drinking water.  From Business Insider:

“The idea just came to me when I saw my parents testing for lead in our water,” Rao, a seventh-grader, told Business Insider. “I went, ‘Well, this is not a reliable process and I’ve got to do something to change this.’”

Over the course of the summer, Rao worked with 3M scientists to bring her proposed sensor to life. The device, which Rao named Tethys after the Greek goddess for water, uses carbon nanotubes to detect the presence of lead. She tuned, or “doped,” the carbon nanotubes specifically to detect lead, pairing the device with a mobile app displaying the water’s status.

Many have heard of the notorious problem of lead contamination at Flint, Michigan, which first hit the national news in 2014.  Perhaps less well-known is that the problem of lead-contaminated drinking water afflicts thousands of water systems throughout the United States, including major cities such as Philadelphia.  And lead poisoning has been associated with all sorts of health problems, including learning disabilities, behavioral disorders, seizures and in extreme cases, even death.

Prior to Rao’s invention, existing lead detection methods were either not very accurate or extremely time-consuming.  It might be worthwhile for this new invention to be refined and perfected if necessary, and then made widely available by local city governments.  As economists and others know, there are sometimes problems in moving new technologies from original idea to invention all the way through to commercial feasibility.  But if this new invention is as promising as it sounds, it may merit fast-tracking and government support in order to benefit potentially millions of people.

Events in Water History: The Collapse of the St. Francis Dam

Excerpted from my recent book review of Heavy Ground, by Norris Hundley and Donald Jackson:

For historians of water in the American West, there are few more excruciatingly tragic events than the collapse of the St. Francis dam in southern California in 1928.  One of the greatest human-made disasters in the history of the western United States, the collapse of the dam caused over 400 deaths and millions and millions of dollars of property damage.  Many water histories have noted the event but to date, there has been no book-length treatment that gives it the attention it deserves.  In this carefully-researched new book, the historians Norris Hundley and Donald Jackson admirably rectify this glaring omission in California water history.

The collapse of the St. Francis Dam was not merely an isolated tragic event: rather, it must be understood within the context of its time.  Dams had been a regular feature of water development in California and other parts of the West since the mid-nineteenth century.  Initially, they were relatively modest projects used to store water and regulate flow for ditch systems during the Gold Rush era.  However, they steadily increased in size and scope over time as the state transitioned to irrigated agriculture, power production, and municipal water development.  By the time of the collapse of the St. Francis dam, there was a long, rich history of dam construction in California which included a great deal of accumulated professional expertise in how to make dams safe.  This is one of the great tragedies of the event: it likely could have been avoided.

To understand why it wasn’t, Hundley and Jackson focus attention on the actions and decisions of one man – William Mulholland – who is better known for his earlier efforts, as superintendent of the Los Angeles Water Department, to bring water to southern California from the Owens Valley.  This famous (some say infamous) earlier episode has received a great deal of attention from scholars, journalists, and even film-makers (as immortalized in the movie Chinatown), and it has likely overshadowed Mulholland’s role in the St. Francis dam collapse.

According to the authors, the ingredients for the disaster are to be found in Mulholland himself, and in the position of remarkable power in which he found himself as water czar for Los Angeles.  Mulholland was by all accounts brilliant, imperious, possessed of a prodigious memory, and incredibly single-minded.  It is also important to note that he was apparently completely self-taught, with no formal training in engineering.  At the same time, he enjoyed “almost unfettered control” over the city’s water supply system for the better part of three decades, despite being nominally inferior to city officials, who deferred to his judgment and expertise.  All of this proved to be a lethal combination when the time came to construct the dam.

To make its case, the book adopts the strategy of contextualizing the collapse within the larger long-term effort by Mulholland, on behalf of the city of Los Angeles, to develop the city’s water supply.  This turns out to be important because the seeds for the disaster are to be found in Mulholland’s earlier experience in bringing Owens Valley water to Los Angeles.  As is well known, that earlier project was bitterly contested.  And while it brought encomiums of praise for Mulholland, it also subjected him to heavy criticism from some quarters.  One of the consequences of this was psychological.  According to the authors, it is “likely” that this experience both fostered hubris in Mulholland while making him less likely to listen to others.  When the time came to build the St. Francis Dam, he did not seek out the opinions of outside experts, preferring to rely on his over-inflated opinion of his own abilities.  The collapse of the dam was the result.  In the end, Mulholland paid for his hubris, as the incident triggered the termination of his position as water czar for the city.

The tragic story of the St. Francis dam did not stop with the collapse itself.  In its aftermath, the city of Los Angeles found itself with a public relations nightmare on its hands, prompting the mayor to quickly vow to make reparations for damages.  At the same time, the city attorney was going on record as saying the city would live up to its legal obligations, but it would keep in mind the interests of the city taxpayers.  Two of the most intriguing chapters in the book are chapters five and six, which relate the response of the city to minimize the damage to both its reputation and its finances, and the subsequent investigation into what went wrong.

A number of interesting facts emerge.  First, the city was not merely motivated by altruism and interest in “doing the right thing”.  It feared a political backlash that might damage its ability to develop other sources of water, especially the looming congressional decision on the Boulder Canyon Project Act, which would construct Boulder Dam on the Colorado River.  Given the explosive population and economic growth in southern California, Mulholland and Los Angeles city leaders were already looking past the Owens Valley project and considering the future water needs of the city.

Second, it is not surprising that the city was desperately interested in avoiding litigation, preferring to settle to pay “appropriate” compensation.  What might be surprising to modern-day readers is that the negotiators for residents damaged by the collapse also tried to restrict access by those residents to legal representation.  Indeed, the head negotiator on behalf of the residents referred to lawyers as “shysters” and “parasites” who were not welcome in the county, and he actively discouraged residents from obtaining legal counsel.  Only a handful of residents ever brought legal action against the city.  It turned out that there were operant economic and class differences between the residents of the damaged communities and those on the committees formed to represent them.  Rather than risking prolonged legal battles, the committee members – many of them prominent farmers and business leaders – wanted agricultural business-as-usual restored as quickly as possible.

Nudging for water conservation

The drought in California that lasted from 2012 until it was officially lifted by Governor Jerry Brown earlier this year stimulated much popular concern and led to some major changes in policy.  The legislature passed a law requiring mandatory groundwater management, and various local municipalities instituted policies mandating water conservation.  The result was significant reductions in water use.

Now that the drought has ended, however, we are already seeing backsliding: people are starting to use more water as the urgency of the moment has passed and people slip back into complacency.

A recent KPCC news story “With drought a fading memory, water use rises” (October 20, 2017) describes the situation in some inland communities in southern California, where, after a few years of significant water conservation, water use is back on the rise again.  In Jurupa Valley and Eastvale, water use is back up and higher than it has been in the past three years.  Now, according to the story, the lawns in front of some homes resemble the Emerald City of Oz.

So are the recent increases in water use an example of history repeating itself?  Are we doomed to re-live the same scenario over and over again, like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day?

Crisis has always been a big motivator.  When a crisis occurs, everybody runs around like chickens with their heads cut off, exhorting the heavens and urging action.  It calls to mind the classic movie The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming, where rumors of a Russian invasion had a small New England town in a tizzy, with nobody listening to poor old Jonathan Winters pleading: We’ve GOT to get organized!  But then the crisis passes and time and time again, we return to business as usual.

But let us take a closer look at the latest lapse into complacency.  While some gains in water reduction have been lost, others seem to be holding.  On the one hand, you have homeowners, weary of having brown front lawns that resemble moonscapes, opening up the spigots again, kind of like dieters binge-eating after starving themselves to lose ten pounds.

In other cases, however, we see that lawns have been ripped out and water use dramatically slashed, with no sign of backsliding.  Or the branch of a new library that has been remodeled and fitted out with water-conserving features, enabling them to save and re-use 60,000 gallons of water a year.

What is the lesson here?  It seems to be that some kinds of backsliding are more likely than others.  It is easy to understand, on a human level, a homeowner’s psychological need to see his lawn green again.  However, if you rip out your lawn and replace it with decorative gravel, cacti, and ornamental stone, you don’t have to walk by that horrible brown moonscape every day.  You start to appreciate the esthetic look of cacti next to ornamental stone.  You have moved to a different place, psychologically speaking.  That is what makes this latter reduction in water use more likely to be permanent.

Similarly, a re-modeled library building that automatically recycles water requires little if any investment of time or attention to the task of conserving water.  After the initial investment is made, conservation just happens.

This year, the Nobel Prize in economics was awarded to Richard Thaler for his work in behavioral economics.  A few years ago, Thaler co-authored a book entitled Nudge, which was all about human beings doing seemingly irrational things, like not saving enough for retirement.  The problem, said Thaler, was that people go on autopilot and tend to stay there.  They put off starting a retirement account, go about their business, life happens, and before you know it, several years have passed and they still haven’t started one.  And then soon enough, they are facing the scary prospect of retirement with insufficient savings and kicking themselves that they didn’t start saving earlier.

The solution, said Thaler, is to change the default setting on the autopilot.  Rather than the default being “Don’t save” in the above example, set the default at “Automatically save”.  For example, when you start a new job, make sure: first, that it indeed has a retirement account and second, that the monthly contributions are set at a level that won’t leave you living in poverty in the end.  Then, just forget about it.

Here is part of what I think is going on with the recent, but partial, backsliding on water conservation since the drought officially ended.  Some of the defaults have been reset, others have not.  When you rip out your lawn, you have set the default at: “Don’t water”.  If you have kept your lawn, your default has not changed, your autopilot kicks in, and before you know it, the lawn sprinklers are on again.

I think there are some important lessons here for water policy.  If we are serious about water conservation, we should be thinking, as much as possible, about policies that reset peoples’ default settings.

We should focus on policies that are more likely to induce permanent changes, keeping in mind peoples’ tendencies to go on autopilot.  Alternate-day lawn watering, water police going around handing out tickets for wasting water, and big splashy signs proclaiming that “Water conservation is cool” are unlikely to make a permanent difference.  After the crisis has passed and we have eased up the restrictions or ended the water conservation campaign, people are likely to just go right back to what they were doing.

But subsidies to rip out lawns, to install recycling features in libraries and so forth may well lead to permanent changes in water use.  When we set water policies, we need to think about human nature and in particular, our all-too-human tendency to just keep on doing what we are accustomed to doing.  Otherwise, we are doomed to our own real-world version of Groundhog Day.

About this blog

I am an economist who has been studying water problems for a long time, especially ones dealing with water use, water scarcity, and water quality.  Though my approach mainly reflects my professional training in economics, I have also found it quite useful to capitalize on the insights and methods of other fields, especially history, law, the natural sciences, philosophy, political science, psychology, and sociology.  Water issues tend to have implications in all of these areas.  By drawing on the insights and methods of multiple disciplines, I believe we can obtain a deeper understanding and come up with more effective solutions to many pressing water problems.  My periodic postings, and the various other resources I will make available on this site, will reflect this multidisciplinary orientation.  I hope you find these resources to be informative and useful.