Southern Californians have been drinking from the Feather River — and washing in it, flushing with it and sprinkling it over their lawns — for nearly a half century without giving it much thought, so the emergency at distant Oroville Dam provides a jolting reminder of our dependence on the wetter, northern part of the state. A disaster there could easily become a crisis here. Oroville is the linchpin of the State Water Project, the massive engineering feat that brings Northern Sierra water from the Feather River to the Sacramento, through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, into the California Aqueduct, over the Tehachapis and to our faucets. This season’s storms have filled the dam to capacity, so managers diverted water onto a concrete spillway to keep it from topping the earthen dam itself. When damage to the spillway was spotted, water managers switched to an unpaved, and previously unused, emergency spillway — but the water releases carved up the hillside, sending debris down the Feather River, threatening further erosion and prompting the evacuation of more than 100,000 residents downstream, including in Yuba City, Marysville and once-remote towns and cities that are increasingly becoming commuting suburbs for greater Sacramento.
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