Following the Oroville Dam Crisis: Is Our Future Drought, Flooding, or Both?

After years of painful drought in California, you might have heard we are on track for the wettest year on record. You likely also heard about the Oroville Dam crisis that forced 188,000 people out of their homes. Is this the future for California following intense droughts: dam failures (Oroville has not been the only one), evacuations, flooding, and mudslides closing down our roads every year? If it is, what do we do about it: build more dams (we already have over 1,400), higher levees, or all move to higher ground? Can you imagine the affordability crisis we would have if everyone from the Central Valley moved to the Sierra?

COMM OrovilleDam SacBee 2017 03These might be the questions running through your head, or you might think it all sounds a bit hyperbolic, either way these are questions being asked by scientists and government agencies. Let’s start with the first question: Is this the future for California? It is always a difficult proposition to predict the future – some of us thought the Cubs were going to win the 2015 World Series – but a group of scientists at MIT have done the research and aim to answer this question. Their answer is yes, “Now MIT scientists have found that such extreme precipitation events in California should become more frequent as the Earth’s climate warms over this century. The researchers developed a new technique that predicts the frequency of local, extreme rainfall events by identifying telltale large-scale patterns in atmospheric data. For California, they calculated that, if the world’s average temperatures rise by 4 degrees Celsius by the year 2100, the state will experience three more extreme precipitation events than the current average, per year.” 

It’s a complicated answer, but we should be clear that extreme storm events do not mean we will be breaking the records for rainfall every year moving forward. I thought we were in a record drought, right? We were, may continue to be after this record year, and can likely expect more droughts in the future. NASA researches predict an 80 percent chance that a “megadrought” potentially lasting 35 years could strike between 2050 and 2099. This might seem too far out to matter to most (presumably childless?) people, but keep in mind that in the short term we most likely are going to continue our cycle of three to five to potentially 35 year periods of drought broken up by record wet years that have the potential to overwhelm our aging infrastructure, not to mention our sanity.

Which brings us to the second question: What do we need to do? Is the answer more dams – would 1,500 do the trick? 2,000? Higher levees? How about the novel idea of forest management? Or, maybe more research so we can better predict these drought periods, record wet years and major storm events that have the potential to overwhelm our dams and “test” the emergency spillways on our dams for the first time.

These are questions that don’t yet have clear answers. Following the Oroville Dam crisis though, it’s clear their implications need to be faced sooner rather than later. We’d love to hear your thoughts on the future of California’s climate and the strategies that will be needed to prepare all of us for an uncertain future.

Photo Courtesy The Sacramento Bee