“The Dam” by Robert Byrne – an Oroville ro·man à clef?

My friend and University of New Mexico water nerd colleague Bruce Thomson has found some timely reading for us – The Dam, a novel by Robert Byrne. Bruce is on UNM’s engineering faculty and taught our engineering ethics course for many years. Quoting Bruce:

It’s a short novel (244 pages) about a young engineer who recognizes there’s a potential failure mode for a large earth filled dam and his efforts to have this flaw recognized and dealt with before the dam fails.  It’s got a very nice description of earth filled dams, their design, construction, and potential vulnerabilities, and ultimately the series of events leading up to and following failure.  It also describes the challenges that a young engineer faces in getting the attention and subsequent action from supervisors, managers, and politicians.  I have used the book in my engineering ethics class as it addresses situations that engineers are likely to encounter, though usually not with such dire consequences.

Worth noting is that, while the dam in the book is not “Oroville”, it’s pretty clearly Oroville:

I read the book again last night.  It’s a fictional earthfill dam, highest in the country,  in Sutter county upstream from Suttonville, 100 miles NE of Sacramento.  It is clearly based on the Oroville dam and lake, though in this book it’s the dam that fails not the spillways.

Timely fiction.


  1. Also really recommend “In the Shadow of the Dam” by Elizabeth M. Sharpe. Non-fiction about the Mill River Flood of 1874, caused by a dam failure.

  2. i wonder how many engineers will be looking at images like this:


    which looks to be about where the initial blowout happened. if you look closely you’ll see a few “darker” spots which are likely shadows (aka indicating holes).

    if my casual inspection of a satellite image shows such things it seems that whoever did the visual inspection from the air may have, um, not done it well. major oops.

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