Maybe the Oroville Dam was cursed from the start.
In December 1964, three years into the massive barrier’s construction, a huge flood struck the northwest, killing dozens. The dam was nearly overtopped, which could have led to its failure even before it was completed. Instead, the partially completed dam helped prevent a larger disaster by reducing the flow of the Feather River. Less than a year later, two trains working on the site collided head-on in a tunnel near the dam, killing four men in a fiery crash and damaging the tunnel, slowing down work on the project.
The dam, which sits south of Chico and north of Sacramento, was eventually completed in 1968, creating the nation’s tallest dam. It forms the head of California’s massive, byzantine State Water Project (SWP). The SWP moves water from Northern California south toward Los Angeles, an average of 3 million acre-feet per year. A drop of water that starts at Lake Oroville, above the dam, takes 10 days to move all the way to the end of the system, south of Los Angeles.
At least in theory. Controlling a system that large is never simple, and the delicate flow of the State Water Project is under threat now, and on Sunday, authorities ordered 188,000 people near the dam to evacuate. “This in NOT A Drill. This in NOT A Drill. This in NOT A Drill,” the Butte County Sheriff’s Office blared in its order. Officials say the dam itself is structurally sound, but the spillways designed to take pressure off the dam in the case of high water levels are both damaged. Dramatic videos show water pouring out of the lake and over the spillways.