Oroville Dam crisis

Oroville Dam
Photo of the Oroville Dam Spillway. Photo credit to California National Guard used under a Creative Commons License from Flickr. Copyright by California National Guard.

The dramatic images of water crashing down the Oroville Dam Spillway in California have shown us that we are dependent on infrastructure that is now well over 50 years old.

Engineers know that the hydrologic models used to model weather events are based on data that was collected decades ago. As noted in an article in the Scientific American, this reliance on historical data could mean that as the climate changes rapidly, the tools that have been used in the past no longer adequately capture the potential scenarios that need to be considered. Climate scientists have warned that with climate change, the snow pack in the mountains could melt rapidly and warmer weather could lead to increased rainfall amounts. Such changes could mean that dam storage capacities are no longer adequate.

As we have previously noted in our Management Advisory on the design professional’s duty to design for resiliency, climate change and severe weather events present significant technical challenges for design professionals. Engineers depend on historical data to model weather events, and with rapid climate change, the historic data may not be sufficient to predict future weather events that are necessary to design adequate infrastructure.

Beyond the technical challenges, firms should clearly state the scope of services they are providing for the client who wants to take into account rapid climate change possibilities. Firms could be involved in developing feasibility studies that consider design alternatives for a range of possible future climate scenarios, based on the best available data and predictions. Once the facility owner/client decides on the course of action, it is important to clearly communicate and document the criteria that are being used to design the facility.

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