Sunday, February 12, 2017


A Personal History

I watched ‘em build Oroville Dam.  Yep.  That Oroville Dam. 

Department of Water Resources
In the 1960s, we lived In Chico, California about a half hour from Oroville Dam’s construction site on the Feather River.  With the foresight that only a few wise parents possess, Mom and Dad thought it would be a good idea if their boys could witness the construction of what would become an Eighth Wonder of the World.

Courtesy: Dad
As kids, our folks ensured that we rooted around historic places in the general vicinity of Chico.  One was Bidwell’s Bar on the Feather.  It was the place where Chico’s founder, John Bidwell, did a little prospecting and placer mining.  Located on a stream course that would be crossed by what would become the Oroville – Quincy Highway, California’s first suspension bridge was built to span the gully.  With the filling of the reservoir, the bridge would be lost, so efforts were made to relocate the historic structure, but I remember it in its original location.

(c) Bill Talbitzer
Many tidbits of history were to be Lost Beneath the Feather, so local newspaper reporter Bill Talbitzer collected stories of both the mining camps along the Feather and of old Oroville, put these together with some historic photographs and published an entertaining volume of lore by the same name.  I have three copies.

Encyclopaedia Brittanica
Construction of the dam began with the installation of a concrete core way down in the bottom of the river canyon.  An observation point had been leveled out so the curious could see this process a great distance up the side of the canyon.  To my nine-year-old eye, the gigantic earthmovers and concrete pumpers looked no bigger than the Tootsie Toys we played with in the pile of dirt out behind the house. 

We would return to this overlook many times to watch the progress.  Being only nine, and then ten, it seemed like it took forever for any of that progress to be noted.  But the observation area proved to be popular – so much so that some entrepreneurial type threw together a snack bar with a large sign advertising “Best Hot Dogs by a Dam Site.”  I thought it was odd that they’d use a cuss word on their billboard, but that was long before I really grasped (and embraced) cussing.

Petersen Tractor
At 770 feet in height and over a half mile in length at the top, Oroville Dam is the world’s largest earth fill dam.  Materials for the endeavor linked Oroville’s 1860s past with its 1960s present.  Where the Feather River tumbles out of the Sierra/Cascade and into the broad, flat Sacramento Valley, the velocity of the falling water slows and it’s load of gravel and silt and gold was deposited along the river’s bottom.  Massive dredges were employed to scoop up this rocky sludge so that gold would be extracted from the goop.  The tailing left behind covered square miles of valley floor, sitting there, undisturbed, until folks realized they were a dandy source of earth-fill for an earth-fill dam.

A twelve-mile long railroad was devised to transport these historic cobbles from the valley floor to the construction site.  Trains of forty car lengths hauled the burden and were ingeniously unloaded using a machine that tipped the load out of the gondolas without unhooking them from the train.

One day, probably a couple of years into our visits, we were surprised to find that the observation area had been fenced off and the hot dog stand removed.  Following detour signs, we soon found ourselves several hundred feet above the old vantage point at a new one.  There would still be a lot of work to do.

Not the least of which was the removal of a concrete arch bridge that was filled around with tailings and protruding out face of the construction.  In order to ensure the integrity of the dam the bridge would need to be blasted away – and the blast would be spectacular.  With multitudes of others, we gathered at the upper observation point to witness the scheduled explosion.  Noon would be the appointed hour and at high noon – with the gathered holding their collective breaths – a plunger was pushed and, outside of what looked like a minor puff of dust, nothing happened.  It would be weeks before the old bridge was taken out.

Completed in 1967 or 68, Oroville Dam would corral the second largest reservoir in the state.  The route of the Western Pacific would be moved, and a new suspension bridge crossed over a now inundated Bidwell’s Bar.  It was predicted that in three year’s time, the lake would be full. 

But an unusually wet rainy season turned that three-year timetable into mere months.  We drove over to Oroville to watch the dam spill for the first time.  Water raced down the chute, crashing into bolsters at the bottom designed to keep the current from washing out the opposite bank of the Feather.  It worked perfectly.

Six or eight years later, when I was living in nearby Paradise, California, a large and rather disconcerting earthquake rattled Butte County causing many broken windows and some structural damage to buildings in downtown Oroville.  Speculation held that the weight of the water behind the dam might have caused movement along a minor fault or fissure with ripple effects across the immediate area.  I recall my brand new VW bus sitting under a wildly swinging carport and wondering what insurance might cover.

In January and February of 2017, California’s five-year drought was interrupted by a series of atmospheric river storms.  Funneling up the river courses of the American, the Yuba and the Feather, area reservoirs filled to capacity way too early in the wet season.  Engineers and hydrologists knew that to reserve capacity for future unknowns, releases from Oroville would be necessary and the spillway was again activated.   

San Francisco Chronicle
This time, however, the unforeseen occurred.  A fault in the huge concrete slip-n-slide allowed water to drain through the surface rather than over it.  In a short time, the boil of water washed out some strata or fill beneath the spillway and a hole developed.  Water rushed beneath the structure and began eroding the hillside.  Operators halted the spill to assess the situation while an incredible volume of water poured into the lake from upstream.

Sacramento Bee
Fortunately, an emergency spillway – one never used before – worked as it had been engineered, allowing inches of water to outflow over its 179-foot length.  In anticipation of this event, a little clearing of the overgrown emergency route ensure that trees, brush and debris would not wash down to the Feather’s course clogging it at the Table Mountain Boulevard Bridge and possibly wiping it out.

When the waters came, everything worked as designed.

Still, “experts” from around the country predicted that the dam was on the brink of failure, raising concerns that were generally unfounded.  Through this I’ve concluded, yet again, that the following is true:


Department of Water Resources
We live in an age where too many believe that nothing the government does is done well.  Oroville Dam stands in stark contrast to that belief.  It is a masterpiece that has lived up to its billing as an “Eighth Wonder of the World.”


Notes:  Here’s a DWR video that tells the real story of the dam’s construction.  It is worth six minutes of your time:

Please forgive any uncredited images found in this post.

UPDATE!!!  Two and a half hours after posting this the Department of Water Resources (DWR) called for an evacuation of low lying areas of Oroville as the soil/topcover in the emergency spillway began to show unexpected signs of erosion. It appears that lake inflow has slowed and that releases down the damaged main spillway have been increased to, hopefully accommodate the circumstance. That said, perhaps the Church of the Open Road was a bit premature in suggesting that "everything worked as designed."

Still, reports of a dam failure are still in the "too early to tell" category.

© 2017
Church of the Open Road Press


  1. Two and a half hours after posting this the Department of Water Resources (DWR) called for an evacuation of low lying areas of Oroville as the soil/topcover in the emergency spillway began to show unexpected signs of erosion. It appears that lake inflow has slowed and that releases down the damaged main spillway have been increased to, hopefully accommodate the circumstance. That said, perhaps the Church of the Open Road was a bit premature in suggesting that "everything worked as designed."

    Still, reports of a dam failure are still in the "too early to tell" category.

  2. Right before I read this blog post, NPR reported that failure of the Oroville Dam is imminent... For California's water needs and for all communities downstream, I hope that this prediction is proven false.

    1. So noted. But to be fair, the news organizations may have difficulty distilling the story into a headline that both attracts readers and is entirely accurate. The dam itself is not in danger of failing. The auxiliary spillway has experienced some erosion that had not been predicted. Here, 18 hours later, the spillway held until enough water was tapped from the pool to bring lake levels down. Had the spillway failed, the issue would have not drained the lake, but a hell of a lot of water would have been freed. As a simple guy with both an opinion and a keyboard, I suspect that, because the auxiliary spillway hadn't been activated in its 48 year life span, somewhere along the line, maintenance of it took a back seat to other priorities. The best thing that can happen now (or once this thing blows over) is for a comprehensive "lessons learned" session be conducted to that similar things don't happen again at Oroville or at any other reservoir in the system. [Curious to me that the whole thing would threaten failure about ten minutes after I confidently predicted that there was nothing to worry about. Proof again, as Abraham Lincoln famously said (Google this), that you can't believe everything you read on the internet.

  3. Thank you of the history lesson. I've been following this on the news and it was good to have some background about the dam.

  4. Nice article.

    My father mentioned California had to invoke eminent domain to acquire the land behind the dam later covered by the reservoir.

    Any info on that aspect?

    1. Your dad was probably right. In general, the areas privately owned that would be inundated would need to be acquired through imminent domain proceedings. I believe that some of the area in the east and north may have been Pumas National Forest, but not sure.

  5. Great site!

    During the go-go years of dam building, the various governments either bought or took the land they needed. Keep in mind that since many dams were built by the US Army Corps of Engineers or the Bureau of Reclamation, many were Federal transactions. But Oroville was built by the California Department of Water Resources. Think CalTrans for dams, and all that implies.

    it sucks when your town is wiped off the planet so that Big Ag can grow rice, pistachios, and almonds, and Angelonos can hose down their sidewalks, but that was the idea.

    I ride up the Feather River Canyon behind the Oroville Dam, Highway 70, at least twice a year. It is a raceway, it is beautiful, and it is still relatively devoid of development. One of my generally successful rules of thumb is if there is a dam nearby, there's a really well-built road nearby. I was told they had to build good roads near dam sites to get the heavy equipment on site.

  6. This after thought: The dam was completed during the Reagan gubernatorial era, though, I think, planned for by Pat Brown during the time when California's free-wheeling, let's do it attitude provided citizens with freeways, universities, airports, and water systems that made the state the envy of... well... many other states and nations. Not to wax political, but it seems to me that its' too bad we've not mustered the ability to maintain the necessary oil changes for these institutions.

    I must say that riding the re-route of the Oro-Quincy Highway (State Route 162 to Berry Creek) is a fantastic ride...

  7. Hey, I thought this sort of thing wasn't supposed to happen in the first world... tsk tsk, bad yanquis, bad bad. Fix that **** asap

    We have a similar issue up north in Zambia, the Kariba dam (the largest man-made reservoir in the world) is facing collapse due to erosion of the basalt foundations.

    If it collapses, the results would be catastrophic. The entire Zambezi valley would be swept away all the way to Mozambique, an estimated 7 million people are in danger.

  8. Somewhat like Bumpa (without his great details), I spent a fair amount of time in Oroville during the dam construction. Our company owned the Wyandotte Olive company of Oroville and that is one of the main olive growing areas in the US. It was pretty neat when they opened the fish hatchery and they had the glass windows for viewing the fish.

    We were at the dam the day before they evacuated about 150,000 people, plus or minus. The plume of water that was going over the main spillway was huge and spectacular. They were hauling in a lot of 'rock bags' by helicopter to bolster the broken spot in the main spillway. The next day, due in part to damage to the primary spillway, the water went over the secondary spillway for the first time in the 48 year history of the dam. The water began to erode some of the area around the secondary spillway thus forcing the evacuation. Fortunately no major dam or downstream damage occurred.

    The day before the evacuation they were saying there was nothing to worry about, and there was no immanent danger. Ha, was that ever wrong.

    According to a fellow who lived at the lake's edge near the dam we talked to, the government knew for years of the potential issues, but chose to do nothing to keep the costs down. What a mistake. Now the repairs will likely be many times more than the preventative maintenance would have cost.
    They've managed to drop the lake level quite a bit the last couple of days, but there's a major storm coming thru again on Monday. Hopefully they've drained the lake enough that the overflow spillway won't be used again.

    As a side note, the whole region is a great motorcycle riding area.