Lessons Of The Great Johnstown Flood Forgotten In California

Race to save badly damaged California dam before MORE rainfall: Second storm is set to hit the tallest dam in America in 48 hours and could cause devastating 100ft deep flood that will leave 200,000 homeless. I hope no one has gone home, the dam is very dangerous now and this is due to human incompetence for they got greedy and decided to keep back the water when it was way over the 30% below total fill point.


That is, the dam was supposed to hold 30% less water to be safe but they didn’t open the spigots to keep it lower, they let it get as deep as possible.


This is resembling more and more the infamous Johnstown flood 100 years ago!  One of the worst disasters aside from 9/11 and the Galveston hurricane disaster, thousands died.


It rained really hard back then!  And the dam owner and friends tried to fix the dam by piling on more dirt…ahem…they have been doing this at this present dam disaster in making!  NOTHING will work for cement, like the cement they poured at the foot of the present dam disaster, will not set, can’t cure for months, rocks are no good, loose dirt is useless.


There IS NO FIX.  The dam, once Nature has seized it with iron jaws, will die.  This winter wet isn’t done at all.  IF the rain were to stop today, the dam might hold long enough to be replaced at tremendous cost of billions of dollars but if the rain continues and it will and if there is a sudden snow melt and it is quite possible, the dam is doomed.


My grandpa was alive when the Johnstown dam collapsed and the Galveston hurricane.  I remember as a child, listening to him talk about both events.  ‘Listen and learn!’ he would say firmly.  He was a scientist and built things on mountain peaks like my dad did, the telescopes on mountains.


Officials also admitted they are in a race against time to drain up to 50-feet of water from the stricken Oroville Dam before a storm hits on Wednesday.


Almost 200,000 people were frantically ordered on Sunday to evacuate along a 40-mile stretch of the Feather River below the dam after authorities said its emergency spillway could give way.



The road to the dam is utterly gone.  Note all the white rock being dumped there.  The water is right at the top of the dam after this overspill.  The loose rock here will vanish in the first 2 minutes of another overtopping.  The event wall of the emergency overtop dam is not infinitely strong.


When it rains heavily, you don’t get a gentle rise in water levels of this containment area.  You get dense, fast moving water that surges into the catchment area.  The hidden physical force of the moving water is a very powerful force, nature’s jack hammer.  After being battered for weeks by flooding, now full and with the dirt which made the cement stronger, gone, all that keeps back this entire lake is the narrow line of the cement spillway.


Behold, the way the land was pitted and excavated by the roiling water pouring over the containment cement wall!  These are now CANYONS, not little scraping, it dug deep and hard.  Remember, trees and dirt used to be there and the slope was gentle.


A close up of the back fill material:


Good lord, that material couldn’t stop a tsunami…this reminds me of Japan and Fukushima, actually.


They are using ‘sandbags’ which are ridiculously small and compared to the volume of dam water that it must hold back, laughably small.  It is like ants trying to stop an overflowing bathtub using grains of sand.  The workers are brave to be here at a very serious potential disaster but the ‘repairs’ are frankly, useless and stupid.


It is like building sand castles on a big rock.  Guess what?  There is zero bonding.  Loose fill won’t bond with bedrock!!!  This is ridiculous.  I firmly believe that people learn very little from history.  The fixes that existed after the terrible Johnstown dam disaster were unlearned by 1970 when work began on this dam.


This is a good view of the dam: the emergency spillway is now a full disaster that can only get worse over time now.  The weakest part of the dam complex is the spillway next to the emergency spillway.  This is where the main dam and the weak parts are joined.  The problem isn’t that the emergency spillway will fail but that the TURBULENCE of all the water moving towards the narrow but central part of the main spillway that has been destroyed this week.


The scouring is due to water rushing towards the spillways circulating against the dam itself.  Drain a tub of water and you can see how it moves around the drain.  Top this with the major stress of weight of water on the dam all the way to the top.  Like I said before, greed to keep all the water plus strong water use restrictions contributed to this disaster in making.


That is, just before the dam overtopped, the governor, Jerry Brown, announced they were going to hoard water and it was ‘still a major drought’ even though, by definition, the water was no longer low, it was very high.


If he told everyone to water their lawns, this may have helped a little bit, or take baths twice a day or something!  But no, he was firmly stuck in the mud, believing in global warming and permanent drought.


That is, this is human error on top of Nature doing Her thing as usual.

The Teton dam disaster: water penetrated the base of the dam and undermined it.  ‘Wet spots’ turn into collapse.  This process appeared three years ago at the Oroville dam.

Another California dam disaster.  California, like Japan and Chile, is very geologically active and worse, is in a state that tends to the drought/flood cycle weather patterns.




Filed under .money matters

8 responses to “Lessons Of The Great Johnstown Flood Forgotten In California

  1. ziff

    i’m betting that it mostly holds

  2. DM

    i’m betting that it mostly holds

    Well,if you are only betting a dollar. But I’m betting that you wouldn’t bet your life on it by staying home in a house downstream.

  3. Jim R

    That giant triangular pile of dirt on the right is the dam. I’m betting it holds too.

    The spillways to the left of the dam, and both are failing right before our eyes. Half of the regular spillway is gone, and the emergency spillway is rapidly removing all topsoil from its path to the river. The road and parking lot are soon to be ruined.

    Elaine is correct in her appraisal of the repair efforts. It is useless if you don’t have time for the concrete to set. And in a big project like this, setting will take weeks, months. Hoover Dam’s concrete may still be getting stronger after many years, it is a slow process.

  4. JimmyJ

    I found some foundation info on the Oroville Dam geology. The link length is ridiculous so do a Google Books search this title for the PDF:


    “The foundation rocks at the site are entirely metamorphics and while appearing to be largely meta igneous may contain meta volcanics and meta-sediments . The terms amphibolite, amphibolite schist and greenstones are applicable generally to this type of rock.”

    “Also, there appears to be some structural feature striking diagonally downstream from right to left abutment from point upstream from axis on right abutment to a point on axis on left abutment at about elevation 300. It may represent a shear or closely spaced Joints or a difference in rock type but it should be thoroughly explored as it cuts through left abutment under the proposed structure.”

    I’m skeptical too that the measly baskets of loose material will do much to stop the headcut, I guess they have to be seen to be doing something. Really they need dry weather and a much lower water level and major reconstruction of the spillway weir. Sustained high water levels will toast this weir eventually.

    More importantly though, I wonder if the main spillway breach (half way down through the concrete) is putting high pressure water into any faults adjacent to the side and toe of the 700ft high main dam. This would be my main worry, especially when you note the comment from the foundation paper about the “structural feature, striking diagonally through the left abutment under the proposed structure”. Yikes!

  5. emsnews

    The literal pounding of the water as it rushed down for several days causes fractures in the bedrock, it is like an earthquake in this regard. This is why the topology is no longer what it was in 1950. It has changed.

    And once cracks form then water goes in and then water is the great rock destroyer, we know.

  6. Old Ari

    Eileen, about a 100 miles north of you is a dam, built in the 1830s, still in good shape and doing what it was designed to do. built by Colonel By.

  7. Jim R

    It’s the same things the oil and gas companies do when they “frack” — pump high pressure water down into an oil-bearing formation to crack the rocks…

    As for Elaine’s neck of the woods, the bedrock I believe is granite. It has survived several episodes of glaciation. Used to be much taller mountains, but now they are mere nubs, and made of very solid rock.

    So if you put in a dam in upstate NY, it can probably last until the next glaciation.

  8. Jim R

    That’s not good news. Schist, greenstone, “structural features” … why did they build the dam at this particular location, again? Wow.

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