It was the summer of 1975 and I was pretending to be a Junior Lifeguard at Folsom Lake when the earth quake struck. The August 1st, Oroville earth quake brought down the Auburn dam before it was even finished.
The earth shook 50 miles away
The Oroville earth quake struck really close to California’s Oroville Dam, one of the tallest earthen dams ever built. As if the earth quake wasn’t scary enough, seismologists didn’t even know some of the earth quake faults even existed. At the time, the Auburn dam was under construction on the American River 10 miles up from Folsom Lake. The Auburn Dam was 50 miles south of Oroville and has similar bed rock material and potentially unknown earthquakes.
Elegant arched dam
The Auburn Dam was to be one of those elegant concrete arch dams like Hoover. But those dams don’t do particularly well in earth quakes. All work on the dam stopped after the Oroville earth quake. Years went by as quake faults were maps and the dam redesigned. It was at this time that the environmental movement was picking up steam and Friends of the River became active against the dam.
Slow death from quick shake
As time drug on, costs to finish to dam exploded while the benefits of flood protection, recreation, and water stayed the same. Even though there were ardent congressional supporters for the Auburn dam, the Bureau of Reclamation decided to block the diversion tunnel and let the river return to its original river bed. The Oroville earth quake started the long process of bringing down the Auburn before it was finished. All we have are some deep cuts in either side of the canyon to remind of a dam that wasn’t finished.
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