Green Infrastructure & the Oroville Dam
Thesis: The near-catastrophe at the Oroville Dam highlights the need and opportunity to manage flood risk through green infrastructure upstream and downstream of urban and rural communities.
What happened in Oroville
The Oroville Dam, located in the Sierra Nevada foothills on the Feather River just a few miles east of the City of Oroville, is the tallest dam in the United States and encloses the second largest reservoir in California, Lake Oroville. The dam was built by the California Department of Water Resources in 1961, and began operating in 1968. Its structure consists of an earthfill embankment, a main concrete spillway, and an earthen emergency spillway. The dam also generates hydroelectricity in an underground power station, the Edward Hyatt Pump-Generating Plant. Water from the lake supplies the California Aqueduct, which flows into the San Joaquin Valley and the Southern California coast.
In February 2017 after multiple high-volume storms, some of which were characterized as atmospheric river events, Lake Oroville was beginning to reach capacity as inflow rates from the Upper Feather River exceeded annual averages and projected rates. Water flows from the Feather River and its tributaries continued to increase from rapid snowmelt and high precipitation in the Sierra Nevada over the course of a week. As a result, water began to overtop the main spillway. Over the course of a few days, the main concrete spillway partially ruptured and began to erode. Dam operators cut back on the water release to avoid further damage, even as Lake Oroville’s water level continued to rise with inflows from another storm. As the lake’s surface approached the emergency level, dam operators were prompted to allow water to flow over the emergency spillway for the first time in history.
As the emergency spillway came into use it also partially failed as the earthen slope began to erode, which compromised the structural integrity of the emergency spillway wall and raised concerns of a catastrophic release. A rupture of the emergency spillway could release a 30-ft wall of water — a grave threat to downstream levies and residents. About 188,000 people were evacuated as a precaution.
The erosion and structural damage to the spillway led to the deployment of 800 personnel from the Department of Water Resources (DWR) in emergency response teams to clean up the more than 1.7 million cubic yards of debris and repair the damaged hillside. In March, the DWR estimated emergency response and recovery costs of $4.7 million a day. In April, the estimated repair cost for the spillways was announced, totaling more than $275 million.
The following graphic illustrates normal dam operation and the malfunction that occurred over the course of multiple events in January and February 2017:
The Oroville Dam incident is not unique in terms of potential impact to nearby communities resulting from above average water flows. Landslides, washouts, and other events damaged western region Union Pacific railroad routes and the Interstate 80 highway, delaying transportation of critical goods and services across the Sierra Nevada. These are just a few of the many examples of damages sustained from extreme precipitation events in the winter of 2016/2017 – which was the wettest on record for the Sacramento, Feather, and American River basins.
Atmospheric Rivers in Northern California
Atmospheric Rivers (ARs) are to northern California what hurricanes are to the east coast. AR events are described by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as long, narrow regions in the atmosphere that
transport water vapor from tropical regions, often releasing their water as precipitation when they move above land masses. Between 80 and 90 percent of the major river flood events in California happen as a result of landfalling atmospheric rivers. Scientific knowledge regarding the behavior of ARs once they make landfall is expanding but is still limited, making ARs particularly challenging to predict and prepare for. However, more extreme precipitation and flood events are expected as a result of current climate change projections, and in California many of these extreme events are caused by atmospheric rivers. Furthermore, it only takes a small temperature shift to influence whether an AR brings snow or rain; rain-on-snow ARs are on average only 2 degrees Celsius warmer than snowpack-preserving storms. More research is needed to understand the risks of ARs and how to prepare for them; however, it is clear from the 2016-2017 winter and the Oroville incident that consideration of ARs must be incorporated into hazard mitigation planning throughout the state.
What is Green Infrastructure?
Green infrastructure can mitigate the impact of future atmospheric rivers and extreme storms like the February 2017 Oroville event. Green infrastructure manages water through nature-based processes and ecological systems. It can be either natural (a wetland) or man-made (a park), and provides ecological, hydrological, and other benefits to society and ecosystems. Green infrastructure can also reduce and treat storm water both at the source and downstream in cities and streets. This is in contrast to grey infrastructure and conventional water management systems such as wastewater plants, buildings, pipes, drainage paths, or dams.
Man-made green infrastructure often takes shape in the restoration or creation of vegetation and healthy soils, or other landscape alterations that increase an area’s ability to absorb and store water. These alterations can be made to urban spaces and nearby land as well as upstream of these areas. Much of the Sierra Nevada landscape provides natural green infrastructure in the form of meadows and wetlands. These places can prevent downstream flooding by serving as natural pathways for water: meadows and wetlands act as sponges, absorbing precipitation at greater capacity, and release it slowly into streams later in the summer, and the streams in turn bring the water down into the foothills and valley. However, human-induced changes, such as river cutting, logging practices, overgrazing, development, parking lots, roads and other impervious surfaces have greatly reduced the Sierra Nevada’s natural capacity for stormwater mitigation. According to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, some 40 to 60 percent (130,000 to 200,000 acres) of Sierra Nevada meadows are in a degraded state.
How Green Infrastructure Could Mitigate Future Flood Events Like Oroville
Investing in green infrastructure upstream benefits both neighboring communities and downstream communities. It can reduce the stress that heavy precipitation places on grey infrastructure systems like the Oroville Dam and downstream cities, and lower the risk and severity of flooding. Green infrastructure investment can take the shape of meadow restoration, which can restore the ability of meadows to absorb sudden influxes of water such as heavy winter precipitation and slow down its release into nearby water flows. This increase in water absorption enables healthy meadows to shift the temporal distribution of stream flow, as they retain water and thus reduce peak flows during winter and spring while increasing water flow during late summer. (It should be noted that these effects vary according to soil type, geography, and other factors, and may only occur slowly over time).
For example, a 2012 Indian Valley meadow restoration project completed by American Rivers and partners successfully shifted the timing of water absorption of an over-grazed meadow to soak up more spring runoff and release flows later in the summer. According to the research team, the meadow’s post-restoration stream outflow increased during summer months by 39% – a substantial increase over pre-restoration efforts, despite reduced spring inflow attributable to drought conditions. Using reasonable assumptions, meadow restoration in the Sierra Nevada could increase groundwater storage by 50,000 to 500,000 acre-feet annually. Furthermore, a separate study on multiple meadows near Lake Tahoe shows that small meadows can delay floods, providing valuable time for downstream emergency operations. Preliminary studies suggest that larger meadows could reduce flood peaks by 15 percent.
The Indian Valley project involved reversing channel downcutting by restoring the surface elevation of streams back up to the same level as meadows. Channel down-cutting occurs when streams erode the soil in their channel below the elevation of surrounding meadow and drains water faster and more extensively, drying the meadow out in the process. Downcut stream channels in a degraded meadow can reduce groundwater storage by as much as 30 percent during and after snowmelt. The following Nature Conservancy graphic demonstrates this concept:
Restoration efforts that maintain floodplains, restore the water table, and reduce downcutting can mitigate flood risks and reduce flood peaks through supporting groundwater absorption. One study found that mitigating downcutting reduced flood peaks by up to 25 percent. In a scenario similar to the Oroville event, in which the flow rate exceeded projections by 30 percent, a 25 percent reduction in inflow could have significantly reduced the reservoir water level and strain on the spillways.
In addition, restoring down-cut streams can allow high flows to overtop the channel and deposit sediment on meadows and floodplains, reducing downstream sedimentation. By slowing water flow, this also reduces stream bank erosion. Reduced sediment transport in turn reduces the amount of sediment deposited in reservoirs, thus maintaining reservoir capacity. One Feather River meadow restoration project helped to reduce annual sediment loading by 17.5 percent.
In general, any restorative effort that maintains or improves characteristics of healthy meadows will also restore water absorption capacity, such as creating a dynamic, open soil structure, improving the capacity of vegetation to absorb water, and supporting biodiversity. Absorption capacity helps to improve resilience both in surrounding areas and communities as well as downstream areas that receive water from these meadows and forests.
Natural solutions that leverage the use of traditional ecological knowledge held by Native American tribal communities regarding native plant species and interactions with stream flow and hydrology can also play a significant role in helping to ensure the resilience of upstream communities. For example, the Maidu Summit Consortium and Conservancy recently developed a land management plan that will return over 2,300 acres of sacred tribal lands in Plumas County to ownership by the Mountain Maidu community, enabling a return to the use of traditional land management practices and methods in restoring watershed health, biodiversity, and forest health.
Green infrastructure further downstream can also reduce the impacts of flooding and extreme precipitation in urban communities and grey infrastructure. For instance, open space conservation adjacent to urban areas, especially conservation of riparian areas, wetlands, and steep hillsides, can mitigate urban flooding by providing natural sinks for the water. Trees and vegetated open spaces such as parks and green roofs can
absorb stormwater before it reaches streets and gutters: one study found that over a 16-year period, urban green roofs reduced stormwater flows between 65-85 percent.
Bioswales and landscape medians deployed by the County of Sacramento infiltrate 98 percent of runoff from a ten-year storm, while other combinations of bioswales, retention ponds, and other green infrastructure features report similarly high infiltration rates. Other examples include urban agriculture, green walls, and urban woodlands.
In addition to upstream and downstream flood mitigation, green infrastructure can provide many other cobenefits such as climate change resilience, carbon sequestration, and wildlife habitat. Urban vegetation, belowground biomass, and soils all provide carbon storage and sequestration benefits, and can even become net sinks. Urban vegetation such as shade trees and green roofs can mitigate the urban heat island effect by reducing air and surface temperatures and shading buildings from summer heat, thereby also improving resident comfort and reducing energy costs related to air-conditioning. Additional urban co-benefits include improved air and water quality: vegetation can absorb and filter contaminants in water flows and airborne particulate matter. Other studies cite psychological, recreational, safety, economic, and health benefits associated with urban green spaces.
For example, parks and golf courses encourage people to take walks, relax, socialize, and recreate, improving physical health and mood as well as access to community and social support; parks, golf courses, and urban agriculture can also provide job opportunities. Urban agriculture can help localize food sources, reduce food deserts, and connect people to food system and nutrition education.
Natural green infrastructure upstream affords multiple co-benefits as well, as long as it is properly maintained. For example, while forests and meadows can act as carbon sinks, they lose this capacity when they are mismanaged – this is evident in the widespread tree mortality resulting from overcrowded stands, drought, insect and disease infestations, and outdated forest management practices in the Sierra Nevada. Restored moist and wet meadows can produce up to five times as much biomass as unrestored dry meadows, a significant increase in carbon storage capacity; one study cites an ongoing carbon sequestration rate of 65 CO2e tons/acre, while another cites up to 220 CO2e tons/acre over a ten-year period resulting from restoration efforts.
Other co-benefits provided by restored meadows and forests include increased biodiversity and wildlife habitat, especially for at-risk species, increased late-season water supply, reduced erosion (and reduced sediment transport downstream), reduced water temperatures, improved water quality, improved recreational and economic opportunities such as hunting and fishing, and improved rangeland quantity and quality for ranchers and farmers.
Finally, meadow restoration is relatively low in cost compared to grey infrastructure projects, with recent projects ranging from $100 to $250 per acre-foot of potential increased water storage. Reservoir projects, in contrast, range from $338 to $685 per acre-foot, and the cost of the Oroville dam crisis is over $275 million.
Policy Opportunities: AB-2480
In September 2016, Governor Jerry Brown signed AB-2480, a source watershed restoration and conservation bill, into law. This legislation officially recognizes meadows and streams as green infrastructure. Moreover, it recognizes source watersheds as integral to California’s watershed, making them eligible for infrastructure investment. This policy provides the opportunity to invest in source watersheds and the natural systems that maintain them – and furthermore, to invest in solutions that mitigate the impact of downstream flooding like the Oroville event.
Green Infrastructure and Climate Change Resilience Planning
Knowledge about the physical impacts of climate change expected in northern California is growing, and the impacts are projected to be significant. Droughts alternating – and in some cases, co-existing – with extreme storm events set the stage for dangerous floods. Wildfires in the Sierra Nevada forests and foothills can increase the speed of runoff and erosion. Oroville serves as a wake-up call to a climate change-fueled hydrological crisis shaped as much by the way the landscape in the watershed above the lake and the dam responded to the extreme storms as it was by the condition of the dam and the spillway.
A holistic consideration of the watershed – including the characteristics and the complexity of both the uplands and the lowlands — is essential for effective adaptation to a dynamic climate. Developing more effective ways of storing snow and water in the higher elevations could save money and lives.
Grey infrastructure budgets are already stretched thin and funding for maintenance is often deprioritized, as was the case with Oroville. Green infrastructure, with its multiple co-benefits, can be funded from multiple sources, including those that address regional flood control, forest health, wildlife habitat, air and water quality, fire protection, carbon storage and credits, and open space. Funding agencies and local governmental jurisdictions are generally not organized to consider the health and functioning of our watersheds as a whole, which creates significant institutional barriers to cross-sectoral collaboration.
Regional climate collaboratives have formed in California to help address this gap by convening stakeholders across regions and sectors. The Sierra Climate Adaptation and Mitigation Partnership (Sierra CAMP) and the Capital Region Climate Readiness Collaborative (CRCRC) are two such public-private organizations that exist to analyze and instigate solutions that bridge urban-rural, upstream-downstream investment barriers. They are working together through the Sierra Nevada Conservancy’s Uplands Lowlands working group, a new effort to connect rural source watershed stakeholders with urban water users and identify creative solutions for a wide range of issues of mutual concern. In addition, the collaboratives work with their members, which range from local governments to community-based and faith organizations to private architectural and engineering firms and local businesses, to sponsor on-the ground demonstration projects that address climate vulnerabilities. Sierra CAMP and the CRCRC are examples of the cross-sectoral, imaginative partnerships that are necessary to find robust solutions to extreme weather events and prevent future disasters like the Oroville Dam incident.
The Sierra Climate Adaptation and Mitigation Partnership (“Sierra CAMP”) works to reduce the burden of climate impacts on communities and ecosystems throughout the Sierra Nevada region, and in the downstream urban communities that depend on those rural resources. Learn more at sbcsierracamp.org.
The Capital Region Climate Readiness Collaborative is a public-private partnership of local leaders seeking to build resilience by finding regional solutions to our shared climate challenges and to safeguard our communities, economy and quality of life.