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The disaster that wasn't

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The photo on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle on Monday, Feb. 13, was ominous as a torrent of water released from the Oroville Dam spillway thundered into the valley below. The recent rains have overwhelmed the capacity of Oroville Dam to hold back millions of acre-feet of water, washing out part of the spillway and endangering 200,000 people below the dam. Officials feared it might collapse this week.

I spent part of my youth fighting wildland fires with the State Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) in Butte County and am quite familiar with the Oroville Dam. It’s an enormous structure; to think that it came close to collapsing this week should alarm all Californians.

The crisis began with a small “pothole” which rapidly enlarged, taking out the unprotected dirt embankment adjacent to the spillway until a crater nearly 300 feet long and 30 feet deep threatened the integrity of the entire structure. Oroville Dam is reported to be the highest dam in the United States; its collapse would have taken out a dozen Northern California communities, leaving a wake of destruction 25 miles downstream with a wall of water at times nearly 30 feet high. The destruction would have resembled the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan several years back.

The question I have is how many other critical structures are in poor repair in California? How many lives are being placed at unnecessary risk because state officials are spending infrastructure money on virtually everything except the infrastructure this state depends upon?

The Oroville emergency began in the night and fortunately did not come to fruition—this time. Had this occurred at night and actually collapsed, it is likely that thousands of Californians would have been swept away in their beds, unaware until catastrophe overtook them that any danger threatened the peace of their homes. This type of disaster or “near miss” is not all that uncommon in Third World countries or in the poorer areas of American Appalachia; this type of event isn’t supposed to happen in California, the state with the seventh largest economy in the world. The Oroville Dam is supposed to be carefully monitored and maintained at high levels of care given the millions of acre-feet of water contained behind its massive structure.

So what happened? What is the state of the Oroville structure, built in the 1960s along with many other water retention projects? California has many priorities for its state budget, but building and maintaining infrastructure seems to be near the bottom of the list. Some years back there was great concern that the levees in the Sacramento Delta were in a terrible state of disrepair; their collapse would flood major areas of the capital region, destroy major north-south transportation arteries, and put at risk hundreds of thousands of people. Some work has been done, but it appears that we have other priorities that put public safety at the back of the bus.

I suspect some of the money to keep California infrastructure operational and safe is being diverted by a Legislature that cares little for projects that don’t fall into the category of environmental consciousness. One need only look at California freeways, likely the most heavily used in the nation, and you can see there’s a lot of needed work that isn’t being done. The Highway 46 East widening project seems to be stalled as state funds evaporate regardless of how many Californians have lost their lives in traffic accidents on that vital east-west lifeline. Inconvenience is the norm for the section of Highway 101 between Avila Beach and Grover Beach as commuters creep along at 10 miles per hour during homeward-bound rush hour due to poor engineering and state funds withheld for political agendas.

We pay the highest gas taxes in the nation, very high personal income taxes, sales taxes, and surcharges on our surcharges, mostly imposed without our consent. Just try to build something on your property and you will pay additional fees and add features to comply with “the code” even if it doesn’t add to safety, aesthetics, or meet personal needs. A stand-alone garage planned to be a simple structure to protect vehicles from weather is now a super-insulated, environmentally conscious structure that we can’t afford to build anymore, so instead we just buy a temporary metal carport. What are we getting for our money aside from an officious bureaucracy that lives a lifestyle we could never afford?

California used to be a place where average people could pursue their dreams and have a small piece of America, safe neighborhoods, and the best schools and roads in the nation. Resources were abundant, and we weren’t afraid to pull them from the earth and use them as they provided the energy, materials, and jobs for an economy envied by the nation, even much of the world.

Oroville wasn’t a disaster this week, just a near miss. How many more Oroville Dams are out there in a steady state of deterioration as money is squandered on “bullet trains to nowhere” and a thousand other pet projects that don’t bring water to farmers or repair freeways, dams, levees or an increasingly vulnerable electric grid subject to catastrophic failure? I know the answer to this: “leave it to the professionals, shut up, go home, and pay your taxes.”

Al Fonzi is an Army lieutenant colonel of military intelligence who had a 35-year military career, serving in both the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Send comments through the editor at clanham@newtimesslo.com.

-- Al Fonzi - Atascadero

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