Robert Bea, campus professor emeritus, publishes report outlining defects leading to Oroville Dam spillway failure

Robert Bea/Courtesy

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Robert Bea, having just returned from the Oakland Airport, walked straight from his taxi into a classroom full of medicine and engineering students and presented them one equation for disaster: A + B = C.

In this equation, A means Mother Nature at work: droughts, storms and earthquakes. B means human hazards: hubris, arrogance, corruption, complacency, ignorance. C means disaster — sooner or later.

This equation can be applied to disasters such as the spillway failure at Oroville Dam that occurred earlier this year in February, according to Bea, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of civil engineering. Bea published a report that outlines the failure, calling it a result of design, construction and maintenance defects made by the California Department of Water Resources.

According to the report, unsatisfactory regulation standards and guidelines are allowing continued use for infrastructures built almost half a century ago that may in fact be unsafe. The report cited potential defects which caused the spillway failure, including insufficient work on spillway base slabs, native soils and incompetent rock overlying the competent rock foundation, as well as ineffective repairs over the years.

DWR spokesperson Lauren Bisnett stated in an email that public safety is essential to the DWR and that it has set plans to repair the spillways. She added that DWR has already taken steps to ensure the integrity of the emergency spillway, including armoring the area beneath the concrete weir with concrete, she said. Rock benches, check dams and other repairs are also being made to stabilize flood control spillway.

Fellow professor emeritus of the civil engineering department, Edward L. Wilson, who worked on material studies of the Oroville Dam in 1957, said Bea’s report was well-documented, adding that the soil which eroded over time under the spillway contributed to its weakness.

Bea has been asked to analyze various high-profile disasters such as the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster and the 2005 New Orleans levee failures after Hurricane Katrina.

After completing his work related to Hurricane Katrina, Bea and other faculty members formed the campus’s Center for Catastrophic Risk Management and received a grant from the National Science Foundation to study California delta infrastructure systems.

“The grant had us evaluate analytically, quantitatively with numbers, what the risks were associated with California delta infrastructure,” Bea said. “Every system we analyzed had risks that were not tolerable.”

He said this problem is not exclusive to Oroville or California, but also applicable to the nation due to the fact that the United States has a poor way of dealing with old infrastructure systems — highways, bridge, gas pipelines, dams and more.

“We adopted a reactive risk management process: watch it fail, fix it fast, return to business as quickly as possible,” Bea said.

Ronald Shumway, a lecturer for the engineering and project management program, said he agreed with the conclusions of Bea’s reports and added that while the Oroville Dam has done us a wonderful service in preventing floods over the years, without higher standards, there could be significant damages.

Additionally, Bea said other faculty members and students contributed to his recent spillway failure report and emphasized the crucial role that graduate students at UC Berkeley have played in the field of forensic engineering and his investigations of different calamities, including the Aliso Canyon gas leak.

“I have so much respect for students. They are our only hope for the future — I want them to be smarter than me,” Bea said. “The way to do that is to give them experiences so that when they see pictures they can see things other people can’t see.”

Contact Christine Lee at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @christinejlee17.