A Look Back On The Oroville Dam With Practical Engineering

Back when it first happened, we covered the Oroville Dam near-disaster. Heavier-than-expected rainfall in California back in early 2017 led to running the dam’s primary spillway at much higher-than-normal levels. February 17, 2017, the operators noticed something odd about the water flow down the spillway, and when they turned off water flowing down the spillway, it was made obvious that they had a major problem on their hands. Several chunks of concrete were missing, and the water had begun gouging into the earth beneath the spillway. It would need repairs before it was properly up to the task of discharging water, but it was still raining.

The rising water level in Lake Oroville put operators in a tricky situation, as they needed to discharge water in the least damaging way possible. They decided to use the emergency spillway to keep water levels at safe levels. Unfortunately, the secondary spillway began to deteriorate even more quickly than the primary had, and continued use could compromise the structure of the entire dam. The difficult decision was made to evacuate downstream residents, and sacrifice the primary spillway to drain the lake to 50 feet below the nominal full level. It worked, and effectively destroyed the bottom two-thirds of the spillway over those 3 months.

With the water at a safe level, the spillways could be repaired, a monumental nearly-2-year process in itself. We’ve covered all this before, but you may be left with the nagging question, what went wrong? [Grady Hillhouse], of the Practical Engineering channel, breaks it down for us in the video embedded below.

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Repairing A Catastrophic Failure: The Oroville Dam Update

More than two years ago, the largest dam in the United States experienced a catastrophic failure of its main spillway, the primary means by which operators of the dam prevent the lake from cresting its pen. The spillway failure caused so much erosion that the hydroelectric plant could not operate, further worsening the situation. In a few days, the dam was finally put to its design limitations, and water began flowing down an emergency spillway that had never been used, prompting the evacuation of 188,000 people living in downstream communities.

Since the time that this crisis came to a head, crews have been working around the clock to repair the main and emergency spillways in order to ensure that one of the largest pieces of infrastructure in the wealthiest country in the world does not suffer a complete failure. The dam’s spillways were reopened recently on April 2, in time for this year’s snow melting, and so far everything looks good.

The repair work was a true feat of engineering, and perhaps a logistics miracle as well. The video below goes over a lot of the raw materials inputs that were needed, but the one that stuck out the most was that a dump truck full of roller-compacted concrete was emptied every five minutes over the entire course of the repair — enough to build a sidewalk from the Oroville Dam to Texas. Part of the reason for the use of such an incredible amount of concrete was that it wasn’t just used to repair the main spillway. An enormous “splash pad” for the emergency spillway was also constructed to limit erosion in the event that it must be used again. But the full change goes beyond concrete and rebar. Join me after the break as I try to wrap my mind around the full scope of the Oroville Dam repair.

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Another California Water Crisis

It’s no secret that a vast amount of American infrastructure is in great need of upgrades, repairs or replacements. The repairs that are desperately needed will come, and they will come in one of two ways. Either proactive repairs can be made when problems are first discovered, or repairs can be made at considerably greater cost after catastrophic failures have occurred. As was the case with the I-35 bridge collapse in Minnesota, we often pay in lives as well. Part of the problem is that infrastructure isn’t very exciting or newsworthy to many people outside of the civil engineering community which leads to complacency and apathy. As a result, it’s likely that you may not have heard about the latest struggle currently playing out in California even though it involves the largest dam in the United States and its potential failure.

Surprisingly enough, the largest dam in the US isn’t the famous Hoover Dam but the Oroville Dam at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. At 235 meters, it is almost 15 meters taller than the Hoover Dam. It can store over four cubic kilometers of water but whether or not it will keep storing that water into the future is currently under question. In February of this year during a flood control operation damage was observed on the dam’s spillway where a massive hole had formed which only got larger as the dam was forced to continue releasing water. The hole quickly grew, and the floodwaters eroded much of the lower half of the spillway embankment, forming a canyon. Continue reading “Another California Water Crisis”