Over the coming days -- and perhaps longer if things get really bad -- you're going to see plenty of stuff about the Oroville Dam in Northern California. In the ongoing natural disaster that seems to be California, drought has turned to flood and a now full reservoir is topping decades-old spillways. While designed for the most stressful situation, they have never been tested like this. Poor maintenance of the spillways has allowed an erosion problem to expand, threatening to undermine the structure and release destructive amounts of water downstream. Local residents were repeatedly assured by public officials that there was no cause for alarm before being told to flee. It's a mess.
If Strong Towns were a propaganda machine, this would be a good time to go full blast with the hysteria. We could do a fundraiser around the existential threat posed by dams and try to make people afraid to ever go near a river. With your $5 a month pledge, we'll hold people accountable and ensure those joints are properly grouted every decade or two so that nothing like this ever happens in America again. Flash to pictures of racially-balanced families hugging each other at a FEMA camp.
Thankfully, we're not a cheap propaganda machine, yet this is a moment we should not let pass. There are some important lessons here that we need to learn, and they aren't the ones you're likely to hear.
Here's what the consensus narrative is likely to be: The state of California, along with the federal government, did not properly fund the maintenance of this facility. They failed to do the proper inspections and to hold themselves accountable. If we spent more money on infrastructure (instead of being a nation of cheapskates), this kind of thing would not happen. All of that is wrong.
The type of maintenance that was needed on this structure was not costly. The trees in the spillway that are the erosion culprit could have been removed by hand decades ago when they were small. They could have been removed by chain saw and stump grinder in the last month. Not expensive. Likewise, the grouting that had been recommended was in the low six figures; chump change for any agency that wanted to prioritize basic maintenance. The reports were there recommending these actions—people in a position to know, care and take action were perfectly aware of it— but they didn't induce action. There is no reason to think that more money would have done anything to change the mindset that caused this problem.
There is actually a different set of causes here, and it has two parts.
We don't put our best minds on maintenance
Say you are running a company and you have three projects requiring equally technical skill-sets. Project #1 is really high profile. If it goes well, it will be amazing for everyone. If it doesn't, it will really make you look bad, but the company will still be okay. Project #2 is routine but still in the public eye. If it goes well, there won't be a lot of accolades but if it goes poorly, it will really damage the company's credibility. Project #3 is mundane to the extreme. If all goes well, nobody will even be aware it was done but if it should go wrong, it will destroy the company along with all pensions, equity and shareholder value.
Project #1: High upside, some downside.
Project #2: Limited upside, limited downside.
Project #3: No upside, potentially fatal downside.
Which project do you assign to your best project manager? Which of the three do you give to your worst?
Let me ask another way: Which project does your best project manager want to work on? What project does your least influential project manager get stuck with?
It's pretty obvious that Project #1 is going to attract high performers and Project #2 is going to invite those who aspire to climb the company ladder. In a three-person competition, the mundane task goes to the lowest performer. That's okay in a private company where management takes calculated risks each day, but what if we're in the public sector? And what if failure on the mundane project means hundreds of thousands of people displaced, hundreds of millions of dollars of emergency repairs, billions in property damage, the loss of water storage in a vital reservoir in a drought-prone state and, potentially, even the loss of human life?
None of this is to suggest that there aren't really smart people working on maintenance (I've worked with a lot of them and I know they're smart) but more of an observation that these people toil in the trenches in obscurity with little appreciation—let alone acclaim—for their efforts. Until something goes wrong.
This is a systematic problem. In my engineering days, I worked with one wastewater system operator—a guy who maintained sewage pumps most days—who, year after year, received high marks from the state oversight organization (MPCA) and numerous "Operator of the Year" awards. Problem is, he completely faked the data he submitted—he wasn't actually doing the work—something the MPCA could have figured out with five minutes on a spreadsheet. These are critical systems, the failure of which is not only costly but can have serious environmental impacts. Our oversight is out-of-sight, out-of-mind, something we are hearing now about the Oroville Dam as well.
Can we find a way to elevate the people who do these tasks day in and day out, whose seriousness over the long term threats of failure are not dulled by their infrequent occurrence? I'm not sure, but at the city level, we need to get these people out of the obscure back rooms and make them part of our day-to-day conversations. We need to have them at the table so their voices are not passed through the filter of people with other ambitions and priorities.
Asset Management Begins at Project Selection
I was once working on sewage treatment alternatives for a small town and was faced with two options. One approach would have solved my land acquisition problem at a really nice price, but it involved a complicated mechanical system (lots of things that can break). The second approach forced me to deal with a difficult farmer who I would need to buy some land from but ended up with a simple and effective system (few moving parts). In my youth and inexperience, I pushed for the mechanical system. The more senior engineers insisted on the simple model. They were right; the city was far better off with a system they only needed to touch a few times a year that would run perfectly fine for decades without much thought.
This realization comes from the guy who, a couple weeks ago, recommended the opposite approach for Flint; one that got to lower costs by constructing a system requiring ongoing, intensive maintenance. Here's the difference: The wastewater system I worked on was for the entire community—one system everyone depended on. Break it and it goes bad in a big way (see: Flint today). The Flint water system I proposed is actually many small, independent water systems. Mess up one and it effects a small group in a place where multiple nearby experts running similar systems are there with advice and spare parts.
In the United States we're obsessed with building new things. We sometimes—begrudgingly— even stop and consider the maintenance implications when we build something new. When we do, however, it's a non-serious shout-out to people of the future who we assume will be so much better off due to our wise investment today. We really don't worry about burdening them.
The best asset management program starts with a better evaluation of whether something should be built in the first place. The data we recently presented on Lafayette, Louisiana—as a representation of the condition of most North American cities—was not presented to suggest that we couldn't maintain all that infrastructure, just that we won't. The citizens of Lafayette are not going to spend 20% of their income fixing their local infrastructure; it's just not a transaction that makes any sense, regardless of the consequences. They have built a whole lot of stuff that is not useful enough to bother maintaining.
And they've built so much stuff -- and continue to obsess over building more -- that they are neglecting many of their critical systems. Undoubtedly, so is your city.
That makes this a systematic failing, not an individual one. When we're undertaking a project, we need to stop and consider whether what we're building will create enough wealth and value for the community that they are going to want to rebuild it again in the future. And for cities, where these obligations last forever, that answer has to be so obvious as to not really be debatable.
And where we can't do that, then we need to plan for things to be thrown away or abandoned when we're done with them. Keep it forever or use it and discard; these should be two conscious choices with nothing in between. And if that's disturbing to you, just know that most of the places we've built actually fall into the "throw away" category.
Responding to Oroville in your city
Every local government body that does infrastructure has systems that fall into one of three categories.
- Critical - Something goes bad and it takes the whole thing down.
- Redundant - Critical systems which have backups and alternatives in place.
- Non-critical - Something goes bad and only a small area is impacted.
We can further categorize these systems as (A) Maintenance Intensive or (B) Low Maintenance.
Every city should have a list of the Critical infrastructure components. The odds are, if you have 1A systems—critical with lots of maintenance required—you're already paying attention. You have likely assigned some of your best people to them and given those positions some degree of prestige. Your staff is probably trying to find ways to add some backups and make those 1A systems into 2A systems. That's great management.
It's the 1B systems that are going to sneak up on you. This is the seawall in New Orleans, the spillway in Oroville. We need them to work -- they're critical -- but we can go decades, or even lifetimes, without suffering any consequence for their neglect. For these systems, we need to be very intentional about making them front and center and not allowing them to become an afterthought. This is where management—top administration and elected officials—need to shower their attention to overcome the natural tendency to have these systems fade into the background.
How has your city identified its critical infrastructure? How are these systems being maintained? How is your leadership actively working to make sure maintenance of these low-maintenance systems doesn't fade into the background?
(Top photo from the State of California)