That Dam Validates Me!

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

The Oroville Dam spillway incident isn’t just a story about the state managing a problem with one dam.

It’s a vindication – of every criticism we might lob at our state

Just ask the critics!

Those who have been warning about infrastructure didn’t just see two troubled spillways at Oroville—but rather an example of the complete collapse of California infrastructure. Or the failure of infrastructure maintenance. Or the failure to update and maintain infrastructure at the least.

Those who say the state isn’t doing enough to prepare for climate change put the spillway disaster on the entire climate. It’s passe to blame this as the product of one very wet winter (after years of dry ones).

Those with axes to grind on water policy were validated by the spillway problems. Dam people saw it as an example that the state didn’t have enough water storage. Those who hate dams saw it as confirmation that dams have failed and we should get rid of them. And the few who follow flood policy said that the dam had confirmed all their earlier warnings.

Oroville’s problems proved everyone correct. Those who criticize environmentalists said the dam showed that enviros opposing proper water infrastructure and storage were dangerously wrong. Environmentalists were convinced that Oroville confirmed their warnings about dams.

And then conservatives like Victor Davis Hanson saw even broader validation: the Oroville incident proved that they’ve always been right about how immigration and benefits to the poor are destroying this state.

What, you ask, do immigrants have to do with dam problems? Hanson made clear in the LA Times that immigrants had contributed to the “possible failure” of the Oroville Dam in two ways. First, by the sheer numbers of immigrants strained our water resources. Second, all the money our state is supposedly spending on immigrants – and those oh-so-generous benefits for California’s poor – are preventing us from keeping up our dams.

That’s not all: Hanson says that all the litigation in the state also explains Oroville.

And one more thing: Hanson, like various farmers, also blamed Oroville Dam on all the money being spent on… you guessed it… high-speed rail. Which I appreciated, even though funding for high-speed rail and for waterworks don’t compete with each other. It’s a less racist argument than pinning the dam on the poor and the foreign-born.

I understand and appreciate the desire to take one small event and imbue it with broader meaning. If it were a crime, I’m a hardened criminal. But there’s a difference between providing narrative and context—and scapegoating. The Oroville Dam already bears the burden of a lot of water; it could collapse with all the added blame.

You could feel a certain collective sadness among the “I told you so” crowd when repairs were made, and the dam held. Now, state officials will turn to repairing the spillways and studying the dam, and fixing the problems.

But they won’t fix all the problems that everyone has been warning about. Which means it won’t be long before environmentalists and lawyers and immigrants and the poor and those who are wrong about infrastructure and water will get blamed for the next near-disaster.

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