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California Today
A conversation with Christopher Cox, who wrote about the near-failure of the Oroville Dam and whether it could happen again.

Perhaps you’ve heard that climate change in California is exacerbating what’s sometimes called “weather whiplash”: Dry periods are stretching longer, interrupted by storms that are growing bigger and more furious.
In other words, our extremes are becoming more extreme.
For a recent issue of The New York Times Magazine, Christopher Cox tackled the question of how extreme weather could threaten California’s dams, an essential piece of the state’s complicated water storage and distribution system.
California is home to the tallest dam in America, located 60 miles north of Sacramento in Oroville. A failure of that dam would be catastrophic; in one particularly alarming scenario, it would send a wave more than 185 feet tall sweeping into the valley below, inundating several towns. When the St. Francis Dam in northern Los Angeles County failed in 1928, the disaster was one of the deadliest in state history.
But in a state threatened so regularly by Mother Nature, the risk of flooding from a dam failure doesn’t tend to get much attention. And that’s despite the fact that just six years ago, as Christopher reported, the Oroville Dam nearly failed.
“Fires happen more frequently, and drought years are more common than wet ones,” he told me. “But the biggest disasters in the state’s history have been floods.”
California’s dams are unprepared for extreme weather, experts told Christopher.
In 1862, the worst flood in the state’s recorded history drowned the Central Valley and, by one account, destroyed one-quarter of all the buildings in the state. But most of the flood data used to design our dams comes from the past century, which experts say has been an unusually placid period in California weather.
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