Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

The Oroville Dam disaster is yet another example of California’s decline

PG&E crews work to move two electric transmission line towers as a precaution should the Oroville Dam emergency spillway needs to be used in Oroville, Calif., on Feb. 10. (Los Angeles Times)

By Victor Davis Hanson// Los Angeles Times

A year ago, politicians and experts were predicting a near-permanent statewide drought, a “new normal” desert climate. The most vivid example of how wrong they were is that California’s majestic Oroville Dam is currently in danger of spillway failure in a season of record snow and rainfall. That could spell catastrophe for thousands who live below it and for the state of California at large that depends on its stored water.

The poor condition of the dam is almost too good a metaphor for the condition of the state as a whole; its possible failure is a reflection of California’s civic decline.

Oroville Dam, along with Shasta Dam, is the crown jewel of California’s state and federal system of water transfers. Finished nearly 50 years ago, the earthen Oroville Dam is the tallest dam in the United States.

The resulting Lake Oroville stores 3.5 million acre feet of snow and rain runoff, and is central to transferring water, eventually via the California Aqueduct, from the wet north to the dry southern half of the state.

The dam was part of the larger work of a brilliant earlier generation of California planners and lawmakers. Given that two-thirds of the state wished to live where one third of the rain and snow fell, they foresaw a vast system of water storage and transference that would remake the face of a growing California by putting people, industry and farms where water was not.

The 19th and 20th century dams have saved thousands of lives and billions of dollars of property from perennial spring flooding. The dam at Oroville helps to control the flows of the Feather, Yuba, and, ultimately, the Sacramento rivers, allowing millions of Californians in these former flood basins to live without fear of deluges. Many Californians have come of age taking dams like Oroville for granted, assuming that flooding was something of ancient family lore — and that the manmade storage reservoirs surrounding their growing cities were “natural” lakes.

The water projects created cheap and clean hydroelectric power. (At one point, California enjoyed one of the least expensive electric delivery systems in the United States.) In addition, dams like Oroville ensured that empty desert acreage on California’s dry west side of the Central Valley could be irrigated.

The result was the rise of the richest farming belt in the world. Complex transfers of water also helped fuel spectacular growth in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles Basin. Their present populations often do not fully appreciate that their dry hillsides and Mediterranean climates could never have supported such urban growth without the can-do vision of a prior generation of hydrological engineers.

Finally, besides, flood control, hydroelectric power and irrigation, California dams created over 1,300 reservoirs that presently provide the state with unmatched mountain recreational and sporting opportunities — often for the poor and middle classes who cannot afford to visit expensive coastal tourist retreats.

Yet the California Water Project and federal Central Valley Project have been comatose for a half-century — despite the recent drought. Environmental lawsuits and redirection of critical state funding stalled final-phase construction, scheduled expansion and maintenance. Necessary improvements to Oroville Dam, like reinforced concrete spillways, were never finished. Nor were planned auxiliary dams on nearby rivers built to relieve the pressure on Oroville.A new generation of Californians — without much memory of floods or what unirrigated California was like before its aqueducts — had the luxury to envision the state’s existing water projects in a radically new light: as environmental errors. To partially correct these mistakes some proposed diverting storage water for fish restoration and  re-creating of wild rivers to flow uninterrupted into San Francisco Bay.

Indeed, pressures mounted to tear down rather than build dams. The state — whose basket of income, sales and gas taxes is among the highest in the country — gradually shifted its priorities from the building and expansion of dams, reservoirs, aqueducts, bridges and highways to redistributionist social welfare programs, state employee pensions and an enormous penal archipelago.

California currently hosts a third of the nation’s welfare recipients. Over one in five Californians lives below the poverty line. One in four Californians was not born in the United States. These social transformations pose enormous political challenges and demand that infrastructure and schools grow commensurately to meet soaring populations.

Instead, California is eating its seed corn.

State lawmakers spend their time obsessing over minutia: a prohibition against free grocery bags and rules against disturbing bobcats. When they do turn their attention to development, they tend to pick projects that serve urban rather than rural populations — for example, that boondoggle of a bullet train whose costs keep climbing even as the project falls years behind schedule.

The crisis at Oroville is a third act in the state’s history: One majestic generation built great dams, a second enjoyed them while they aged, and a third fiddles as they now erode.

Victor Davis Hanson is a fifth-generation rural Californian and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

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About victorhanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture. He recently published an historical novel The End of Sparta (2012), a realistic retelling of Epaminondas invasion and liberation of Spartan-control Messenia. In The Father of Us All (2011), he collected earlier essays on warfare ancient and modern. His upcoming history The Savior Generals(2013) analyzes how five generals in the history of the West changed the course of battles against all odds. He was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 and the Bradley Prize in 2008. Hanson, who was the fifth successive generation to live in the same house on his family’s farm, was a full-time orchard and vineyard grower from 1980-1984, before joining the nearby CSU Fresno campus in 1984 to initiate a classical languages program. In 1991, he was awarded an American Philological Association Excellence in Teaching Award, which is given yearly to the country’s top undergraduate teachers of Greek and Latin. Hanson has been a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, California (1992-93), a visiting professor of classics at Stanford University (1991-92), a recipient of the Eric Breindel Award for opinion journalism (2002), an Alexander Onassis Fellow (2001), and was named alumnus of the year of the University of California, Santa Cruz (2002). He was also the visiting Shifrin Professor of Military History at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland (2002-3). He received the Manhattan Institute’s Wriston Lectureship in 2004, and the 2006 Nimitz Lectureship in Military History at UC Berkeley in 2006. Hanson is the author of hundreds of articles, book reviews, scholarly papers, and newspaper editorials on matters ranging from ancient Greek, agrarian and military history to foreign affairs, domestic politics, and contemporary culture. He has written or edited 17 books, including Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece (1983; paperback ed. University of California Press, 1998); The Western Way of War (Alfred Knopf, 1989; 2d paperback ed. University of California Press, 2000); Hoplites: The Ancient Greek Battle Experience (Routledge, 1991; paperback., 1992); The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization(Free Press, 1995; 2nd paperback ed., University of California Press, 2000);Fields without Dreams: Defending the Agrarian Idea (Free Press, 1996; paperback, Touchstone, 1997; The Bay Area Book reviewers Non-fiction winner for 1996); The Land Was Everything: Letters from an American Farmer (Free Press, 2000; a Los Angeles Times Notable book of the year); The Wars of the Ancient Greeks (Cassell, 1999; paperback, 2001); The Soul of Battle (Free Press, 1999, paperback, Anchor/Vintage, 2000); Carnage and Culture (Doubleday, 2001; Anchor/Vintage, 2002; a New York Times bestseller); An Autumn of War (Anchor/Vintage, 2002); Mexifornia: A State of Becoming (Encounter, 2003),Ripples of Battle (Doubleday, 2003), and Between War and Peace (Random House, 2004). A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War, was published by Random House in October 2005. It was named one of the New York Times Notable 100 Books of 2006. Hanson coauthored, with John Heath, Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom (Free Press, 1998; paperback, Encounter Press, 2000); with Bruce Thornton and John Heath, Bonfire of the Humanities (ISI Books, 2001); and with Heather MacDonald, and Steven Malanga, The Immigration Solution: A Better Plan Than Today’s (Ivan Dee 2007). He edited a collection of essays on ancient warfare, Makers of Ancient Strategy (Princeton University Press, 2010). Hanson has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, International Herald Tribune, New York Post, National Review, Washington Times, Commentary, The Washington Post, Claremont Review of Books, American Heritage, New Criterion, Policy Review, Wilson Quarterly, Weekly Standard, Daily Telegraph, and has been interviewed often on National Public Radio, PBS Newshour, Fox News, CNN, and C-Span’s Book TV and In-Depth. He serves on the editorial board of the Military History Quarterly, and City Journal. Since 2001, Hanson has written a weekly column for National Review Online, and in 2004, began his weekly syndicated column for Tribune Media Services. In 2006, he also began thrice-weekly blog for Pajamas Media, Works and Days. Hanson was educated at the University of California, Santa Cruz (BA, Classics, 1975, ‘highest honors’ Classics, ‘college honors’, Cowell College), the American School of Classical Studies, Athens (regular member, 1978-79) and received his Ph.D. in Classics from Stanford University in 1980. He divides his time between his forty-acre tree and vine farm near Selma, California, where he was born in 1953, and the Stanford campus.

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