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California's Oroville Dam disaster is a wake-up call for America

No, humans cannot make it rain, stop the rain, or produce real rainbows in the sky. But we can do things that protect ourselves from the rain and get it to work for our agriculture and overall economy. And it's clearer than ever that Californians have simply failed to do those things as the Oroville Dam crisis continues to force massive evacuations and raises fears of a potential disaster.

When we talk about America's need for an improved and repaired infrastructure, we usually focus on roads, airports, and innovative new projects like the Hyperloop. But we often forget the crucial role dams play in our infrastructure grid. When built and used properly, dams provide crucial clean water resources for commercial and private use, ease the effects and threats of flooding, and also provide a massive source of power via hydroelectricity.

The Oroville Dam in Northern California was built to do all those things, and it has. But there's one problem: It's old. The dam was first put into operation in May of 1968, making the nearly 50-year-old facility basically "geriatric" by civil engineering standards. And even if it weren't as old, California's environmental special interest groups have effectively frozen the construction of new dams and reservoirs in the state since the mid-1970s. That's overtaxed the system of existing dams and made the Oroville situation all the more dangerous.

Before this year, the discussion in California about dams was dominated by the fact that the state was experiencing a drought, as opposed to the continued storms and flooding its facing now. Conservatives rightly pointed out that had California built more dams over the last 40 years, there would have been more water stored throughout the state to alleviate the worst conditions of its recent long term and severe drought. Governor Jerry Brown helped put an effective moratorium on dam construction during his first stint as governor from 1975-83.

Yes, there are some real concerns about fish and other wildlife that must be addressed whenever new dams or reservoirs are built. But with California's human population swelling to 40 million, (up from 23 million in 1980), the lack of any significant new dam or reservoir projects in the more rain-heavy northern part of the state is beyond unconscionable.

Brown and the greens were correct that dams don't stop droughts or make it rain, but they can help make conditions less severe and avoid some economic and environmental disasters. Now the problem is the massive rain coming all at once. But the lack of enough dams is again making the problem worse. The Oroville Dam has simply been doing too much of the work for too long. More dams and reservoirs as well as systems to recharge depleted underground aquifers "might have retained some of those heavy flows on the Sacramento and other rivers this month. Even a tiny percentage would make a huge difference when drought once again hits," said opinion writer Dan Walters in an article for the Sacramento Bee.

"And that brings us back to America's general infrastructure crisis and President Donald Trump's promises to launch a massive infrastructure improvement effort. He and we may not think a lot about dams in that context, but we should since the greatest infrastructure building period in modern U.S. history was all about dams."

Overzealous environmentalists and Democrats are mostly to blame for inaction, but not completely. Capitalizing on Republican President Richard Nixon's signing of the 1973 Endangered Species Act, animal rights groups used that new weapon to block several key California projects like building the once-planned Dos Rios and Ah Pah reservoirs, raising the Shasta Dam, and building the so-called Peripheral Canal. Ecologists and economic expansionists can debate the merits of sacrificing human water needs for protecting salmon all day. But perhaps they can all agree that the state of California should have done something to cater to a population that's almost doubled in less than half a lifetime. Either the state should have enacted much more stringent usage rules long ago or done something to stem the inflow of new residents.

Another problem with plenty of bipartisan blame to go around is California's budget woes. All the above-mentioned projects are cheaper than most other infrastructure projects like building massive new roads or high speed railways, but they still aren't free. And neither Democratic or Republican governors of the Golden State have been able to keep its budgets very golden over the years.

And that brings us back to America's general infrastructure crisis and President Donald Trump's promises to launch a massive infrastructure improvement effort. He and we may not think a lot about dams in that context, but we should since the greatest infrastructure building period in modern U.S. history was all about dams. That would be the New Deal era of the 1930s and 1940s, when dams comprised the two biggest infrastructure projects of the era. They were the Grand Coulee Dam and the Hoover Dam. They both employed tens of thousands of workers, provided irrigation for new farmland, and produced enough electricity to power entire regions of the country. More than 70 years later, all three of those things are still needed.

As President Trump now faces what may be tens of thousands of infrastructure project requests, the current emergency situation in California should put dam and reservoir building efforts front and center. That might seem like a no-brainer to non-politicos, but politics are definitely a potential barrier. With California not likely to ever vote for a Republican presidential candidate in the foreseeable future, anything other than emergency aid from the White House might also never come. And President Trump has already threatened to cut federal funding to "out of control" California in an interview with Bill O'Reilly earlier this month. Infrastructure shouldn't be held hostage by politics, but who's naive enough to believe it isn't?

In medicine, the first rule is "do no harm." And when it comes to building and rebuilding America, the first rule should be to avoid the worst disasters. Whether it's the Oroville Dam or collapsing bridges like I-35 bridge in Minneapolis 10 years ago, there are a lot of potential disasters that need to be on the top of President Trump's building plans. If the new president is truly the non-politician he often claims to be, addressing California's water fiascoes will indeed be infrastructure job #1.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

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