The Oroville Dam and the Fight for Infrastructure Funding

Joel Fox
Editor of Fox & Hounds and President of the Small Business Action Committee

Might a pending disaster of the Oroville Dam spillway collapse move the legislature to a compromise on infrastructure funding? One of the criticisms that has arisen since the threat of a water deluge is that the dam and spillways were not maintained properly even when warnings about the structure were raised more than a decade ago. A disaster or near disaster could focus the legislature to resolve differences and create a package for infrastructure improvements.

Recall nearly 25 years ago that fires roared through Orange County prior to a statewide vote in a special election called by Governor Pete Wilson on a tax measure to fund public safety purposes. Nature’s fury convinced voters to go along with the tax in Proposition 172.

Similarly, the swollen Oroville Lake and coming rains might awaken legislators to act quickly on infrastructure fixes. The focus in the legislature has been on roads and highways but the danger to people and property at the site of the Oroville dam could set off a more complete infrastructure solution.

But any solution would hang on the issue of taxes.

While the legislature is considering measures pushed by members of the majority to raise taxes to deal with the roads, Republicans introduced a measure to direct current dollars as a fix for the roads. Suggestions include tying transportation vehicle fees and taxes directly to road repair such as sales and use tax on the sale of new and used vehicles and directing truck weight fees and vehicle insurance taxes to the cause of road repair.

If the discussion over infrastructure repair expands beyond the roads driven by the Oroville Dam situation, will there be a move at a grand compromise to accept some of the Republican solutions for the roads and expand the revenue side to include other infrastructure needs?

Water storage infrastructure is an important part of what allows California to grow and prosper. Given past disasters of failed dams and flooding, officials acted quickly and properly in Oroville and beyond to protect residents below the dams. But it’s important not to lose sight of the need for more water storage along with upgraded water infrastructure.

After the 1928 St. Francis Dam catastrophe in Southern California, an investigation examined the reasons for the dam’s failing. According to a Smithsonian Magazine story on the disaster, at the end of the examining commission’s report Governor C. C. Young was quoted: “While fully cognizant of the appalling loss of life and great destruction of property caused by this frightful disaster, it is at the same time self-evident that the full development of this great commonwealth requires that her water resources be fully conserved. This can be done only by containing the constructions of great dams, such as those which are now doing their work without signs of weakness.”

A lesson from yesterday that must be embraced today.

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