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Oroville Dam in California | Water Level, Construction & History

Instructor: Nathan Mahr

Nathan has taught English literature, business, social sciences, writing, and history for over five years. He has a B.A. in Comparative History of Ideas from the University of Washington.

Learn about the Oroville Dam in California and understand its purpose. Explore the history of the California dam and see Lake Oroville and its water levels. Updated: 02/04/2023

What is California's Oroville Dam?

The Oroville Dam is a large earthen embankment dam located near Oroville, California on the Feather River. It is kept in place by a huge wall of soil, rocks, clay, and concrete. The construction of the California Oroville Dam resulted in the formation of Lake Oroville, which is now the second-largest reservoir in California. The water stored in the lake is released downstream for agricultural, industrial, and municipal uses.

Dams are structures built to control the flow of water. They work by creating a barrier in a river or stream that holds and stores up water from one side of the barrier and releases it from the other side. This helps to regulate the flow of water downstream, reduce flooding, provide irrigation for agriculture, generate hydroelectric power, and store water during times of drought.

The Oroville Dam is part of the California State Water Project, which delivers water to agricultural and urban areas in the state. The dam is also important for providing flood control along the Feather River. In addition to all of this, it has a hydroelectric power plant that can generate up to 819 megawatts of power.

Location of the Oroville Dam

The Oroville Dam is located east of the city of Oroville, California in Butte County, just off Highway 70. Oroville is a city of nearly 20,000 people, located at the north end of California's Central Valley. It is a popular tourist destination for its outdoor activities, including fishing, boating, hunting, and hiking.

The dam sits in the Feather River Canyon, about 75 miles (121 km) North of Sacramento. The dam is surrounded by mountains and is close to other important and related features such as Lake Oroville, the Oroville Wildlife Area, and the Thermalito Afterbay.

The Oroville Dam is located in Butte County.

Map of California showing the location of Butte County

Characteristics of the Oroville Dam

The Oroville Dam stands 770 feet (235 m) tall and is 6,920 feet (2,109 m) long, making it the tallest dam in the United States. The dam itself has a total volume of 78,000,000 cubic yards (59,635,000 cubic meters) and its reservoir has a total water capacity of about 3.5 million acre-feet (4,300,000,000 cubic meters). It is an earthen embankment dam, meaning it is partially made of natural materials such as clay, rocks, and soil as opposed to only concrete. Through the use of gates, spillways, and the hydroelectric power plant, it can regulate water flow downstream and generate electricity. The Californian dam also has a concrete spillway that can control the flow of water out of the reservoir during times of high water.

Uses of the Oroville Dam

As previously mentioned, the Oroville Dam is part of the California State Water Project. This means that it helps regulate and store water in times of drought, which then gets distributed downstream for various uses.

The dam also helps to control flooding along the Feather River. The dam stores excess runoff during times of heavy rain and snowmelt and then gradually releases the stored water downstream when needed. This helps to reduce flooding, which is especially important for agricultural areas in the Central Valley.

In addition to its water supply and flood control capabilities, a central feature of the Oroville Dam is its hydroelectric power plant known as the Edward Hyatt Power Plant. This plant can generate enough energy to power about 800,000 homes when running at full capacity, making it a valuable source of renewable energy.

Finally, the lake formed by the dam is also an important recreational destination. It is a popular spot for boating, fishing, swimming, and camping. There are also hiking trails in the surrounding area, as well as a wealth of wildlife and plants native to the region.

The Oroville Dam is built of a mix of natural and man-made materials.

Photograph of the Oroville Dam on Lake Oroville

Lake Oroville's Water Levels

Water levels at Lake Oroville vary with the seasons. Generally, Lake Oroville's water levels are highest during the winter and spring months due to snowmelt and runoff from storms. The water level can then drop during the summer months due to increased demand for water downstream and evaporation from the lake's surface. During times of drought, water levels can also drop as a result of decreased precipitation and water usage upstream.

The lake's water levels are closely monitored and regulated by the dam operators to ensure that it remains within a safe range. During times of high water, additional gates and spillways can be opened to safely release excess water downstream. Alternatively, when the water level is low, more water can be kept in the reservoir to meet downstream demands.

Lake Oroville's water levels are important not only for the safety of those living downstream but also for the health of the ecosystem. The lake's healthy water levels are important for fish and wildlife, including threatened salmon species. During times of high water, the lake can reach full levels of up to 900 feet (274 m) above sea level. Its lowest level ever recorded was reached in 2021 when the lake was measured at 629 feet (192 meters) above sea level. Previous to this, the lowest water level was 645 feet (196 meters) in 1977.

Lake Oroville is the second largest reservoir in the state of California.

Photograph of Lake Oroville with hills behind it

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the status of the Oroville Dam?

The Oroville Dam is currently in good condition. Following the 2017 failure, significant repairs and upgrades were made to improve the infrastructure of the dam's spillways and overall safety standards.

How deep is Lake Oroville right now?

The water level of Lake Oroville can vary greatly depending on many factors including precipitation and water usage. As of late January of 2023, the lake was measured at 801.55 feet above sea level.

What caused the Oroville Dam failure?

The Oroville Dam failure in 2017 was caused by a combination of severe weather conditions, inadequate maintenance and monitoring of the dam's spillways, as well as inadequate infrastructure. In particular, the emergency spillway at Oroville Dam was found to be insufficiently protected against erosion caused by heavy rains and rapid flows of water. This resulted severe damage to portions of the spillway.

What causes the water levels at Lake Oroville in California to drop?

The water levels of Lake Oroville can drop due to a variety of reasons. Some these factors include increased demand for water downstream, drought conditions, and decreased precipitation in the area.

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