Civil engineer Veronica Webster studies long-term trends for assessing flood risk at Michigan Technological University. She says that for the Oroville Dam, the immediacy of the problem is related to longer running issues.
"Many of our hydraulic structures are likely under designed," Webster says, citing the outdated methods for sizing dams in the era of Oroville and expected increases in extreme weather. "Even if climate change cannot be to blame at this time, erosion of this particular spillway is occurring at a time when snowpack is above normal and snowmelt is being accelerated by heavy rains, contributing to greater flows and higher chance of failure."
Much like the water contamination in Flint represents an extreme of infrastructure risk across the country, the situation at Oroville Dam reveals challenges in dam infrastructure and management at large. The immediate solution is being handled with evacuations; Webster says the long-term solutions need to consider changes in land use and climate, as well as infrastructure updates and improved maintenance plans.
Webster is an associate professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Michigan Tech and is a recent recipient of the National Science Foundation CAREER award to study flood frequency and risk analysis. She is active in the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Environmental Water Resources Institute, past chair of the ASCE task committee on Statistical Applications in Hydrology and associate editor of the ASCE Journal of Hydrologic Engineering.