This past week I’ve joined many others watching the news unfolding about Oroville dam and its eroding spillway. The videos of 100,000 cubic feet per second churning over the spillway and down the river were impressive and terrifying to watch, particularly when the 180,000 or so residents received evacuation orders last Sunday.
Since then, reservoir levels have been lowered, the amount of water being released has been reduced and residents have been told that it is safe to return home.
The integrity of the dam is not in question, but the spillway and emergency spillways were and are the source of concern. The cost of repairing the spillways is in the range of $100-200 million. And this is only one of 2,000 deficient high hazard dams nationally according to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials. An article on Water Deeply provides an insightful analysis of the costs to maintain and replace water infrastructure—and estimated $187 billion to meet current needs for drinking water, wastewater, waterways, ports, and levee repairs nationwide. When the intensified weather events that continue to occur are taken into account, the costs are likely to go even higher. So it is not surprising that the California State Water Resources Control Board released a draft resolution for a comprehensive response to climate change.
Here on the other side of the country, the staff at the Association of State Wetland Managers along with many other citizens of Maine and New Hampshire encountered a different set of challenges over the past week. Over the past nine days five winter storms have blown through the region.
The snow is literally waist-deep and everyone is worn down from getting up every other day to begin plowing, blowing, shoveling and raking snow–again. Town budgets will be strained covering these costs. Again maintenance and upkeep of infrastructure is very expensive. Variable weather, adds significantly to the difficulty of planning as costs become more variable in response to the increasing variability in weather.
Over time ASWM has frequently encouraged exploration and adoption of ‘natural infrastructure’ as a way to reduce the infrastructure costs over time. Natural infrastructure provides the opportunity to expand the tools available to meet water infrastructure needs, particularly in response to an increasingly variable climate. Natural infrastructure can serve as a buffer against weather extremes and the associated costs.
While I was following the news about Oroville Dam I remembered a meeting I had at the Forest Service a couple years ago. I had asked to meet with someone about beaver reintroduction on Forest Service lands and was surprised when I arrived to find a half dozen people in a room as well as an equal number on the phone. I learned that concerns about water supply on the front range of Colorado was leading to an increasing interest in establishing reservoirs on Forest Service lands. But putting reservoirs in mountainous places is potentially a poor decision when taking into consideration variable weather. The large forest fires that have occurred in recent years remove trees and vegetation leading to erosion of whole hillsides–a lot of erosion. A reservoir/dam located in an area subject to forest fires would receive that sedimentation and that could significantly reduce the storage capacity of the reservoir. Reservoirs are expensive. The people I talked to were very interested in beaver reintroduction as an alternative approach because beaver dams are small impoundments that store water in the pool behind the dam and also in the groundwater next to the dam. Reintroducing beaver (and this would have to be a large number of beaver over time) on Forest Service lands could be an alternative strategy for storing water in the Front Range. The expense is likely to be significantly lower and beaver have the ability to self-perpetuate. This is both a good and bad thing since beaver are often managed as a nuisance species when they build dams across road culverts and other areas. Beaver reintroduction is a strategy that would require careful planning and thought.
There are opportunities to adapt using the natural world around us and benefiting humans and the environment.