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L.A. County Supervisors Order Report On Dams In Wake Of Oroville Crisis

Devil's Gate Dam. (Photo by Mike HumeFollow via the LAist Featured Photos pool on Flickr)
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The ongoing emergency at the Oroville Dam in Northern California is subsiding, at least for the moment. On Tuesday, an evacuation order for the surrounding area was lifted, meaning approximately 188,000 people were able to return to their homes. Residents aren't in the clear just yet, however; workers are rushing to make repairs at the dam, and lower the water levels, as another storm is expected to hit California later this week. For Angelenos, the crisis may serve as a reminder that we have 14 dams in the L.A. County, and that maintenance of these structures is vital for public safety.

On Tuesday, L.A. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger put forth a motion that requested the L.A. County Department of Public Works to provide a report on the condition of those dams, reports the L.A. Times. The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to approve that motion.

"[The] Oroville situation reminds us of the need to proactively evaluate our county’s risk with regard to dams and other facilities which may be prone to failure from storms, earthquakes or other foreseeable events,” Barger said in a release. Of the 14 dams, 13 of them reside in the 5th district, which Barger represents. The area includes much of the San Gabriel Valley and the foothills of the San Fernando Valley.

According to Steven Frasher, a public information officer at the county DPW, the report will include a comprehensive look into the conditions of the dams, explanations of the type of work that goes into maintaining them, as well as a list of infrastructure projects that will need to be completed (these projects will be prioritized according to their importance). The report is expected to be written and delivered to the board within 30 days.

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As KPCC notes, all the dams were built between 1920 and 1939, but this is the first time that the board has ever requested a comprehensive report on their conditions. Though, no, this doesn't mean the dams have gone unchecked; Public Works says that the dams are monitored and repaired around the clock.

“There’s a regimen of daily, weekly, monthly and annual inspections," Kerjon Lee, a spokesman for the county DPW, told The Signal. “In preparation for the storm season, for instance, there are certain protocols to check that the lakes can take in that giant gulp of water, but also to make sure the integrity of the dams remain secure. If there are earthquakes, there are other protocols for that."

The county hasn't experience a dam-related crisis in decades, but the Southland was indeed home to one of the worst spillages in U.S. history. The St. Francis dam, up in the Santa Clarita Valley, failed at around midnight on March 12, 1928. The spillage included a 10-story wall of water that swept through the area. The catastrophe would take the lives of about 500 to 600 people, making the incident the second most fatal in California history (the 1906 San Francisco earthquake remains the state's first most fatal incident). The enormity of this tragedy still looms in the history of Southern California; precautions will need to be taken to ensure it doesn't happen again.

Though, as Frasher noted, Angelenos don't have to sound the alarm siren just yet. Regarding the Oroville incident, Frasher said that it doesn't present a "direct comparison" to the situation in Southern California. He noted that Northern California has been getting more precipitation this year, and that the spillways connected to the dams in Southern California are in a better condition to receive heavy amounts of water. "We don't have anything as pressing as Oroville, but that was certainly a teachable moment," Frasher told LAist. He added that the report "is timely," as "everyone is paying attention" to what's happening at Oroville.