Thoughts That Hurt To Think #010 – That’s a Big Dam Problem!

Not too long ago, my family found ourselves under an evacuation order. There was a dam having problems upstream from us, and our town was one of the places in danger of being flooded. It was a real worst case scenario they were entertaining, and the proper steps were taken to avoid that possibility…but it got me thinking, and doing a little research. It’s amazing how many things come to your attention when you’re writing a blog called ‘Thoughts That Hurt to Think’ every week, and the universe has spoken to me in a number of ways to bring me fresh ideas.

Honestly, though…I never thought I would get an automated phone call telling me it was time to evacuate. Being the person that I am, I started asking some questions. It turns out that this is one of the best examples of thoughts that hurt to think that I could possibly come up with, and I never would have thought of it if we hadn’t been evacuated. Now I wanted to know what that worse case scenario was, how likely it is, and what measures are being taken to avoid it.

It turns out that catastrophe is coming, that it’s inevitable, and that not much is being done about it at all. If you think I’m being dramatic, read on…then do your research, and correct me if I’m wrong.

Here’s what I found out:

Pretty much all of the dams in America were built somewhere between the 1930s and the 1970s. They provide power, and create recreation areas, and make places that used to be river bottoms or flood plains inhabitable. We all know that, right? What I didn’t know, until recently, is that all of the dams in America were built to last around fifty to a hundred years. Do you know what that means?

That’s right, I’m about to do some of that author math; please be kind, and cut me a little slack. I’m supposed to be imaginative, and dramatic…precise mathematical accuracy comes in third at best.

If the last of the dams were built in the 1970s, even the youngest dams in the country are nearing fifty years old. The ones built in the thirties are only a couple decades from expiring, according to the very people who designed them. The Oroville dam is the tallest dam in the United States, and has technology that senses the amount of pressure that each level of the structure is experiencing; that technology was built into the dam, which means it is as old as the structure itself.

Which is to say, my iPhone probably has more technological capability than the tallest dam in the country. Do you know how many times technology has doubled in virtually every field since the infrastructure in America was built? Are there dozens of other things right before our very eyes, that were only designed to last until right about now? Were they relying on us knowing that, and replacing it with the far superior ideas of a future they could only imagine?

If so…someone should probably come up with a solution, and fast. Or a bunch of them, preferably. If all the dams burst in our country, the number of homes that would be destroyed or rendered uninhabitable is pretty mind-blowing. And that’s the thing…they’re designed to last fifty to a hundred years, and fail. Oh, and also…time’s up! It only took a few years for folks to start building in those fertile new valleys, and recreating in those beautiful new lakes. Now the structures that created those lakes and valleys are old, and rickety; and apparently that’s how they were designed. To last until right about now.

Now, that’s a big dam problem!

Here’s another one: how do you build a new dam, to replace the old one? Do you place it downriver, or up? Do you displace a bunch of households upstream, or a bunch of households downstream? It seems pretty clear that we can’t rebuild them where they stand, while they’re full of water and still doing the jobs we depend on them to keep doing. Was there a plan for all this, back when this temporary fix was implemented?

These dams are part of the infrastructure of our country, and they provide more than recreational areas and building sites. They also provide power, and lots of it. They distribute water to the areas that need it, when they need it, by holding water in reserve during rainy years and releasing it during droughts. It’s really a great system, one that we have come to depend on in so many ways that a failure would have butterfly effects that flapped in nearly everyone’s face.

Just about everyone knows that California is in a constant cycle of years of drought followed by massive rainy seasons followed by drought followed by endless repetitions on the theme. It’s the dams and dikes and levies that keep us from running out of water during those droughts, and those things are apparently not built to last. As much as some folks in other parts of the country might claim they wouldn’t miss the state if it slipped quietly into the ocean, others know that California produces more than movies and microchips.

With the largest economy in the country, the state ranks in as the sixth largest economy in the world. California represents around 13% of all the commerce in the country, which is pretty impressive considering how many states provide less than one percent. I thought most of the country’s food was grown in the midwest, even when I was living in California. It took moving up to the northern part of the state to realize that America depends on it for far more vital things than entertainment or technology. The state quietly and thanklessly produces over 90% of the country’s broccoli, garlic, plums, kiwis, celery, walnuts and artichokes. If you look at the list of fruits and vegetables that California produces over fifty percent of, it gets a little ridiculously long.

The American diet would be reduced pretty quickly to little more than grains and meats, if California was not around. Even the fruits and vegetables that other states produce to compliment the massive supply that comes from California would suddenly become the most expensive item on everyone’s shopping list, and the meat market would skyrocket right along with it if California’s farms all disappeared. With such a bland diet, maybe no one would care that they didn’t have any new movies to watch. Even if they still had plenty of corn to pop.

If we’re all in this together, and it’s probably best if we are, it might be a good idea to get this infrastructure thing figured out. California only has around 1400 of the 84,000 dams in America, and its economy is more likely to help those other states rebuild than the other way around. Rather than point fingers at each other, we all might benefit from acknowledging that our lives wouldn’t be the same if not for the efforts of a lot of other people. It’s easy to forget how much you depend on others when those benefits are still around, and it’s almost impossible to avoid being trapped in a set of beliefs that are built more on ignorance and opinion than knowledge and facts.

Which, coincidentally, leads us to next week’s topic.

My dad used to say it all the time, when I was a kid: “You live in a bubble!” For a long time I didn’t know what he meant, and when I started to understand a little I had to ask: “Wait…don’t you live in a bubble, too?” I still give him a lot of credit for answering the way he did, and I find more humor in it with each passing year.

“Of course I live in a bubble, too!” he said, way back when. “Everybody does! We each live in our own little bubble of ignorance!”

Those words were the original inspiration for the next post, and I had it all labeled up in the queue as ‘Everybody lives in a bubble!’ But then my favorite pop star came out with a song, before I could come out with the blog, and I just had to change it. I hope you come back next week for a post inspired by my dad and Katy Perry, respectively. It’s called…

‘Everybody lives in a bubble! Bubble!’

Thanks for reading!

All the best,

J.K. Norry
The Secret Society of Deeper Meaning
Twitter: @JayNorry

3 thoughts on “Thoughts That Hurt To Think #010 – That’s a Big Dam Problem!

  1. Very well put….if everyone would educate themselves on OUR current situation we would be far better for it!! Its sad that it won’t happen but hopefully some will after such a great read. Thank you for the facts…

  2. Very interesting, I’m glad you added that to your email. I really enjoyed it. I think, if it’s ok of course, I might share your article amongst some friends and family. I think they would enjoy it as well. You make a lot of valid points and bring to light quite a few things I didn’t know. I had no idea that California produced so much of our vegetables, fruits I figured but I would have never guessed vegetables. And I also had no idea about the damns and the “expiration” so to speak. I’m glad I’m not near any here where I am in Virginia. Good luck where you are and I hope they get that figured out soon or a whole lot of people could be impacted.

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