Valley Voices

Eight water bonds passed since 2000, and we still have the Oroville disaster

Helicopters move boulders onto the damaged emergency spillway of Oroville Dam on Feb. 14.
Helicopters move boulders onto the damaged emergency spillway of Oroville Dam on Feb. 14.

After six years of drought and a few months of flooding, California’s decades-long political commitment to ideology of being either for the environment or against progress has endangered the state’s water supply system and is threatening public safety, environmental health and economic stability.

Rather than upgrade California’s water collection and delivery systems, for 50 years state bureaucrats, political appointees and many elected officials focused their priorities on an onslaught of environmental standards, regulations, projects and programs committed to their rose-colored-glasses vision of California.

They created a false choice for all elected officials, every “wanna-be” officeholder, career bureaucrat, water manager, scientist and engineer, advocacy group, community leader, and even California voters: either you are for the environment or you are against California.

Once again Mother Nature has shown that these choices cannot be either-or decisions. Both options – all options – are important. Six years of devastating drought and a quarter year of record rain are no match for California’s political game masters.

For Oroville Dam, our state’s latest costly mishap, 188,000 Butte, Yuba and Sutter county residents were forced from their homes and businesses as dam operators worked desperately to prevent the collapse of an emergency spillway that failed spectacularly the first time it was used.

Since 2000, California has passed eight water bonds, but not a single dollar went to replacing the Oroville Dam’s emergency spillway with concrete rather than soil – a defect so serious that three environmental groups demanded its repair in 2005, during the dam’s relicensing process by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. A curt memo from the California Department of Water Resources dismissed the threat, the Wall Street Journal said.

Whether it’s decrepit, broken pipes spilling precious water in Los Angeles, eroding a spillway in Oroville, a population with needs that double in size each decade or environmental protection programs requiring 50 percent of the water we capture and store, we have known the water infrastructure challenges we face for 50 years. But our choices to address them have been limited, restricted and removed from the table; not by science, not by engineering, not by opportunity, but by pure politics.

Can California survive this recent Oroville Dam crisis? If Mother Nature gives our state a reprieve for its talented and capable engineers and construction teams to work, yes it can. It may require, however, California’s legislators and Gov. Jerry Brown to open a dialogue with the federal government – even the Trump administration they rejoice in taunting.

Decades of these false choices – of “either-or” but never “and” – by those more interested in maintaining political dominance than in giving true public service for the common good have resulted in universal failure. Just ask the people of Oroville.

State bureaucrats, political appointees and elected officials have failed the environment. They have ignored our failing infrastructure. They have failed all of California.

Aubrey Bettencourt is the executive director of the Hanford-based California Water Alliance, a statewide water policy nonprofit. Contact her at