Clickbait Headlines

by Don Friedman on January 19, 2018

The failure of the spillway at the Oroville Dam in California was a big story last year. The spillway failure had the potential to cause an overall failure of the dam, which would have been catastrophic. Emergency measures to lower the water behind the dam and repair the spillway worked, and a disaster was averted.

As part of good engineering practice, the state ordered a forensic study of the failure, its causes, and ways to minimize the risk of similar failures. That report is comprehensive and available to the public. As is often true in situations like this, the report does not identify a single cause for the problem. Rather, it begins with:

The Oroville Dam spillway incident was caused by a long-term systemic failure of the California Department of Water Resources (DWR), regulatory, and general industry practices to recognize and address inherent spillway design and construction weaknesses, poor bedrock quality, and deteriorated service spillway chute conditions. The incident cannot reasonably be “blamed” mainly on any one individual, group, or organization.

Over 500 pages of detail follow that statement. So far, so good. I haven’t read every word of the report yet, but I have no reason to believe that it doesn’t address the problems that led to the failure.

I learned that the report was available online from this article: Failed Oroville Dam Spillway designed by inexperienced grad student in the 1960s. That headline is frankly, garbage. A little further into the article, comes the statement: “The principal designer of the spillway told the dam-safety team that he had just completed post-graduate work at the time he worked on the Oroville project decades ago, had had no previous engineering employment beyond two summer stints, and had never designed a spillway before.” So the designer was not a grad student at the time, but rather a full-time employee of the DWR with a graduate degree. Unless the agency operated in a different manner than every other engineering organization in the country, his work would have been reviewed by other engineers at multiple check-points before construction began. The designer wasn’t a grad student and he was part of a group of engineers that designed the dam.

That kind of sensational headline raise fears for no good reason. It’s completely unnecessary to tell the story. Here’s a reasonable article with a reasonable headline: Governor appoints new chief at California’s troubled water agency. Engineering failures are frightening enough, and difficult enough for the average person to understand, without pandering to the worst get-clicks-at-any-cost instincts of the internet.

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