Oroville Dam faces another risk: Earthquakes from rapid rise in water levels

Oroville Dam faces another risk: Earthquakes from rapid rise in water levels
An aerial view shows water rushing out of the Oroville Dam’s main spillway on Feb. 21, 2017. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

The crisis over the last few weeks at Oroville Dam was about how to handle large amounts of water flowing into the lake with both of the reservoir’s spillways damaged.

But there also was a seismic angle to the story. As Lake Oroville swung from being at 41% of capacity to 101% in just two months, scientists are asking whether the filling of the reservoir at the fastest rate in at least a generation can produce a damaging earthquake.

No one knows for certain, but the question has been a source of debate since shortly after America’s tallest dam was built, and a magnitude 5.7 earthquake occurred that some believe was related to an unprecedented lowering and rise of reservoir levels. Moreover, two microearthquakes were detected last month soon after Lake Oroville began rushing over its emergency spillway.

About a day and a half after officials ordered mass evacuations of more than 100,000 people downstream of Oroville Dam — fearing the collapse of a hillside eroded by the overflowing lake — two tiny temblors were recorded. They struck in the early hours of Valentine’s Day, just before 3 a.m.: a magnitude 0.8, and then a 1.0.

“It’s obviously something that needs to be carefully monitored,” U.S. Geological Survey research geophysicist Justin Rubinstein said of the need to carefully monitor dam sites for human-triggered earthquakes.

“But in general, when you see seismicity induced by reservoirs, it’s generally sort of in the beginning of the lifetime of the dam,” Rubinstein said.

That’s what some scientists believed happened at this reservoir in 1975, seven years after Oroville Dam was completed.

Lake Oroville had been filled before. What made the winter of 1974-75 unusual was that water levels had to be reduced to their lowest level since the reservoir was first filled to repair intakes to the hydroelectric power plant.

Months later, there was an unprecedented refilling of the lake that ended in June 1975.

Then the earthquakes started.

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