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Oroville Matters – More Than You Might Think

Tuesday, February 14, 2017  |  posted by John Schroeder

If this morning’s news is to be believed the danger is passed for the Oroville dam.  But that is hardly the case.  As the LA Times reported late last night (for once doing its job) with rain expected Wednesday, we could very easily be back in the same hole we were in very soon.  Evacuees, all roughly 200,000 of them, remain displaced – nor is there any word when they might expect to be allowed to return home.  This is at best a respite, the potential for further disaster remains very, very high.  We have a day to breath deeply, but neither the effort nor the concern can slacken in the slightest.

Despite the coverage this is not a natural disaster – this is a man-made disaster.  It could be a failure of design, it could be a maintenance failure, or it could be a management failure (it most likely is a combination of all three) but regardless all three of those are human activities.  So with that in mind let’s look at some figures and estimates just to get our heads around how bad this actually is and how bad it could become.

First of all, what is all this costing right now?  Well, I googled it and there simply are no figures currently available  So let’s figure $150/day per evacuee.  So, 188,000 evacuees times $150 per day and we come up with a figure of….$28M/day.  We are on day three of the evacuation and already we’re in the hole almost $90M.   I would not even know how to estimate the cost of repairs or the cost of the National Guard stand-up underway, or the cost in lost water, but I think it is fair to say that as things stand right now this is a billion dollar disaster.  And it can only get worse.

The Insurance Information Institute estimates that in 2015 man-made disaster losses totaled roughly $9B.  So, as things stand today this particular man-made disaster would account for about 11% of the total losses in man-made disasters in 2015.  That is approximately the same as the sixteen aviation disasters that year combined.  And believe me when I tell you we are shooting low on the estimate scale here. Continue Reading


Entropy and Oroville, or…This Is What Happens When We Think We Are God

Monday, February 13, 2017  |  posted by John Schroeder

There are some things that simply cannot be changed.  One of those things is something scientists like to call “The Second Law of Thermodynamics.”  I won’t bore you with the science, but you can think of it as how scientists codify the notion that nature is going to do what nature is going to do and if we want to change it we have to put a lot of energy into it.  It is corollary to the notion of inertia, which more people are aware of, but The Second Law has much broader application than does Newton’s First.  Practically speaking, if we are going to do something like dam a river, The Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us that we are going to have to expend a lot of energy (that means dollars in the real world) to build the dam and, even more importantly, to maintain it.  The river is going to keep wanting to be a river, not a lake, and our continuous effort is required to keep it a lake or else it is going to go back to being a river.  The United States supposedly learned this lesson the hard way back in 1889.

But the events currently unfolding in and around Oroville, California say that maybe that lesson has not sunk in so well.  Make no mistake, this is already an unmitigated disaster.  Nearly 200,000 people have been evacuated.  That is a fail of itself.  (Not to mention the untold amount of water being lost in a severely water starved state.)  The only question now is how much worse is this going to get.  The possibilities are horrifying to contemplate.

A dam builder from Ohio has said this about Oroville:

It is a case of pennies pinched producing dollars spent, perhaps tragedy.

To anyone in California with any common sense, this conclusion does not come as a surprise.  But it is truly tragic to see it be reached in such a fashion.  What is truly maddening is that by the time this is done – the investigations complete their misdirecting best, the alphabet soup of water and state agencies have all pointed fingers at one another, and the press has run all that through the washer and dryer a few times, the voters of California won’t have a clue what went wrong and will just keep going in the same political direction that has so obviously failed them.  It has already started.  According to ABC News:

The Mercury News, a local newspaper, reported that three environmental groups — the Friends of the River, the Sierra Club and the South Yuba Citizens League — filed a motion with the federal government in 2005 as part of the Oroville Dam’s relicensing process, urging federal officials to bolster the dam’s emergency spillway.

In that motion, the groups warned that the dam did not meet modern safety standards, The Mercury News reported.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rejected their request after state agencies determined the refurbishment an unnecessary expense, the paper said.

ABC News reached out to the FERC for a comment about the 2005 motion but did not immediately receive a response. [emphasis aded]

But there is a deeper tragedy still. Continue Reading

What Has This Country Come To? (UPDATED)

Sunday, February 12, 2017  |  posted by John Schroeder

Comic books have always been political.  They are a reflection of what is happening in the world at the time of their publication.  They were born in the build-up to WWII and were massive pro-American propaganda instruments during that conflict.

There were no “Avengers” in WWII, but Captain America was part of a group known as “The Invaders.”  At DC Comics, home of Superman and Batman, there was the Justice Society that worked in close concert with none other than FDR.

As time has moved forward comics have tried to remain “relevant.” Continue Reading

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