California Water Department Censured for Concealing Oroville Dam's Safety Hazards: News Releases: The Independent Institute

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News Release
October 17, 2017

California Water Department Censured for Concealing Oroville Dam’s Safety Hazards

OAKLAND, CA—For its reckless mismanagement of Oroville Dam—including its concealing of safety hazards that put lives at risk when rising water levels at Lake Oroville last February overwhelmed the dam’s two spillways—the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) has been named the latest “winner” of the California Golden Fleece® Award.

The Oakland-based Independent Institute bestows the award quarterly to California government agencies or programs that swindle taxpayers or violate the public trust. In the case of DWR, the mistakes and wrongdoing could have caused a total dam collapse resulting in severe property damage, mass injuries, and fatalities.

After the spillway failures, which prompted the evacuation of nearly 200,000 people in downstream communities, details emerged showing that DWR failed to act on specific warnings about spillway integrity, provided insufficient inspection and repair processes, and made poor design and construction choices.

Worse, the agency also concealed safety problems from the public.

DWR has shown itself to be woefully inadequate to operate California’s 44 state-owned dams, a task that requires public candor as well as professional competence.

In his new report for the California Golden Fleece® Award, Independent Institute Senior Fellow Lawrence J. McQuillan makes several recommendations to deal with the problems:

  • Transfer dam ownership to private water companies or private irrigation districts. Private entities (which own 43 percent of California dams) have stronger incentives for preventive maintenance and timely repairs. In contrast, DWR (and federal agencies, which own 226 dams in California) has weaker incentives, competes with other causes for public dollars, and faces conflicting political pressures.
  • Give more weight to local concerns, especially public safety. Regardless of the Oroville Dam’s future ownership, downstream communities should be made to feel that their interests are top priority. DWR has often answered to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which in 2014 declared the Oroville Dam spillways safe for use.
  • Require independent dam inspections. DWR’s Division of Safety of Dams is too interconnected with state agencies to have the public trust. Dam oversight should be conducted by objective third-party experts required to make inspection reports available to the public.

“These recommendations should be part of a broader plan to modernize California’s entire, outdated, legacy water system,” says McQuillan, who is currently writing a book about California water policies.

Lawrence J. McQuillan, Ph.D., is Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute and Director of the Center on Entrepreneurial Innovation. The Independent Institute is a non-profit, research and educational organization that promotes the power of independent thinking to boldly advance peaceful, prosperous, and free societies grounded in a commitment to human worth and dignity. For more information, visit For media inquiries, contact Communications Manager Rob Ade: [email protected]; (510) 632-1366, ext. 114.

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