Dam, Sam!

Question of the Day: How complacent have California dam operators become under the ‘permanent drought’ of global warming?
found on the Interwebs

This is a story of bad reporting, bad management, and bad boondoggles.

Damage to the spillway keeps worsening at America’s tallest dam at Oroville, California. Dam operators opened the flood gates to keep the state’s second-largest reservoir from overflowing even more disastrously although they know that increasing the flow would erode a big part — perhaps the entire bottom half — of the spillway. That’s about “150 yards of concrete,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported February 10, “that will have to be painstakingly rebuilt during the dry months.” Repair costs, “state officials said, will likely top $100 million.”


Oroville Dam-SpillwayLake Oroville was at 99% capacity by Friday with only 3.5 feet left to fill. The good news is that the larger spillway, made of reinforced concrete, was peeling downward and not threatening the integrity of the 770-foot-high dam itself.

Wait. What good news? 666 THOUSAND DOLLARS A YARD??? That’s even more than a Florida highway boondoggle!

“And Californians think they should run the country…” Rufus said.

That has to be stupid reporting. I reckon the hole is actually 150 yards long, not 150 cubic yards. Still, the equivalent of less than a tenth of a mile of Interstate highway repair (that’s about what we’re talking about here) ought not cost $100 million.

“What did they piss away on the 18-mile stretch?” Rufus asked.

Good question. The Florida Department of Transportation is famous here in the Keys for its decade-long, costly boondoggles.

The Stretch was a two-lane highway identified as U.S. 1. It carries 99% of the traffic between Florida City on the mainland and Key Largo and points west, all of it along the former right-of-way of the Key West leg of the Florida East Coast Railway. It was rebuilt to save lives and to facilitate the increased volume of traffic, particularly during hurricane evacuations.

It is now a two-lane highway divided by a concrete barrier that separates northbound and southbound lanes.

Construction took place in three stages which tied up the main entry to the Keys for years. The first ten miles, down at this end of the road, chewed us up from Key Largo to about mile marker 116. That cost $153,565,133. The second phase extended from mile marker 116 up to Florida City but the D.O.T. skipped a three-mile segment in the middle. No one knows why. Those five miles of paving took about three years, from 2008-2011 and cost $111,827,749. The middle three miles, from mile marker 121 to mile marker 124, was later in 2011 at a cost of $17,043,687. The “additional engineering and administrative costs” brought the total cost to $330 million for the entire project or more than $18.3 million per mile.

In the real world, a new six-lane Interstate highway costs about $7 million per mile in rural areas or $11-12 million per mile in urban areas.

Back to Oroville. That’s in California which is apparently even more expensive than Florida.

The Butte County sheriff issued evacuation orders yesterday for everyone living below the dam, some 188,000 people, because the crumbling emergency spillway could give way and unleash floodwaters onto rural communities along the Feather River.

Wait. What?

Didn’t they tell us the spillway was peeling downward and not threatening the integrity of the 770-foot-high dam itself?

The California Department of Water Resources said on Twitter at about 4:30 p.m. PST that the spillway next to the dam was “predicted to fail within the next hour.”

Wait. What?

Didn’t they tell us the spillway was peeling downward and not threatening the integrity of the 770-foot-high dam itself?

The damaged spillway remained standing several hours later; it’s still there.

There’s no word when evacuation order will be lifted.

“I figure the 188,000 people in Oroville, Yuba County, Butte County, Marysville and nearby communities probably voted for Trump,” Rufus said.

The water level has now dropped. The dam itself is fine.


Teeny Tiny Little Homes

“Tiny houses” are growing in popularity but one tiny cost never comes up: time.

I lived in about 90 square feet (albeit with a really nice “porch”) for a lot of most summers when I was growing up.

We had a 27′, 1950 Richardson cabin cruiser then; the cabin was about 10′ long and the boat had a 9′ beam. There was plenty of room as long as we didn’t mind making beds up every night and making furniture again in the morning. The boat had an enclosed head, a galley with ice box, and a lot of stowage. Boat, RV, and tiny house designers have learned to find storage everywhere (there is always more space available in the hull of the boat than is accessible).

On a boat or “boondocking” (also called “dry camping”), the grocery store often is not reachable.

Modern boats of that size have showers and hot water in the enclosed head and their galleys have electric refrigerators. But we didn’t have a washer or dryer. We didn’t have a freezer. We didn’t have room for more than a couple days of food although we could always hide an extra couple of cans of Dinty Moore beef stew or corned beef for sandwiches.

Tiny HouseTiny houses are at a big crossroad, according to Plastics News.

“Twenty-five tiny houses are under construction in a blighted Detroit neighborhood by a non-profit group with a plan that could become a national model for helping people who earn about $12,000 a year become homeowners in seven years.”

There are plenty of other “tiny house” projects. Rufus reminded me that Vic de Zen of Royal Plastics had developed a line of tiny houses made from extruded PVC to be used quickly to replace houses after a hurricane trashed the Carribean islands.

“I really think that house shown in the article is pretty …. but I have waaaaaay too much stuff for 400 square feet!” Rufus said. “And I hope that continues to be the case.”

The even smaller 300-square foot Tudor-style tiny house in the article had electric and heating bills, in the middle of cold Michigan in February, will be $32 because that minimal space has “9 inches of insulation and very energy efficient windows.”

$32 for light and heat in February seems high. A human body and a lightbulb should be able to heat that little space with that much insulation. Put two human bodies in there and you’d have to open a window to cool the place.

The race is on for smaller and smaller spaces. One man lives in a 207-square-foot space with his wife and two kids. The Richardson had just 90-square-feet in the cabin.

Rufus has waaaaaay too much stuff but the real question isn’t what stuff you give up but what other cost?

There is no room for collections of books. “I miss them, but I have audiobooks on my phone and a Kindle,” Liz Arden said.

There isn’t any wall space for art. “I have a 40-inch flat screen on one wall and three other smaller screens and they all cycle through my etchings,” North Puffin’s mayor and general roue Beau Pinder said.

“There’s no storage for my shot glasses and salt-and-pepper shakers,” Alice said. OK, that’s a problem.

Stuff really isn’t the issue. Ms. Arden has decluttered her life, so the spare look needed in a tiny space works for her.

Time is the issue.

Larger spaces have room for a pantry or a workshop or a craftroom or a studio which means larger spaces have food for the week or the month and a pipe wrench for the bathroom leak and a sewing machine for the quilt and a stack of unfinished and partially finished canvases (eventually) for sale. Larger spaces have dedicated rooms for eating and sleeping and pooping.

Tiny spaces eat time to shop every day or two for food. The home repair job takes time to borrow or rent a pipe wrench. Sewing the quilt takes time to visit an “offsite” community center. The stack of canvases means a separate studio. The artist has to get dressed and travel there to create. The storage under the bed/sofa/lounge and the dining room table/work bench/desk/kitchen counter means tearing down one job to set up the next. The head lived under the starboard berth in our first boat giving new meaning to the idea that “you have to get up to go.”

The trade-off is a good one and one most tiny house owners make happily. After all, a space that does so many different things so well is a joy. There is no 10′ Christmas tree to drag out to the compost pile. And, bonus, since there is no room for wrapping paper, you don’t have to wrap Christmas presents.

The caveat? Time is the only non-renewable resource in the tiny house oeuvre.



No, not the “perfume.” That crap makes my nose curl.

SWMBO complained that I was obsessing over trailers last night.

“Yes,” I said. “It’s what I do.”

I’m an engineer, not just because I went to school for it but moreso because I need to drill and chew and drill and chew to get the facts, find the data, figure out how something works. I do that with the news that is a staple of this column. I do it daily with the weather.

Weather is important to me, and not just for concerts. I have an old roof in South Puffin and a lot of grass to mow in North Puffin. I drive a car with no top. It also lets us remind ourselves that the modeling that makes the one-day Inaccuweather forecasts so wrong so often uses the same modeling as climatologists have to forecast out one century.

And lately I’ve chewed around the ankles of two different kinds of trailer houses.

Some back story. I don’t like to camp — I live on an island and I summer right on the sixth Great Lake in the middle of tree-filled lawn, so I don’t need a field with trees and ponds and beaches — but I like not having to set up in motel after motel after motel when I travel. Traveling, for me, means visiting, sightseeing, touristy stuff, photography, and working on the road. Photography and working on the road means a fair dinkum load of gear.

I’d like to go someplace, set up “camp,” and just visit and look and live there for a few days, then move a couple hundred miles and do it again.

I also like to design and build things. Engineer, remember? I have long known that my design skills far exceed anyone who builds RVs for a living so my summer brainstorm is simple. Why not build the “camper” that purely, precisely, perfectly meets my travel needs. That becomes the Perfect Travel Trailer.

The PTT would be 6.5′ wide with a full length, four foot, power slide. That brings its towing width down to about that of the truck. Add a power mechanism to lower the top when it’s time to travel and the frontal area is suddenly no longer an air grabber. Inside the layout can be moderately conventional with about 300 square feet of floor space.

I’ve been working with composite materials all my life but I think I will build the shell in wood. It’s lighter and cheaper than steel and even than aluminum, both important, and can be pretty to look at. It’s also well within the grasp of my shop.

I had a layout ready, of course, when I stumbled upon this thirty-one foot long, 1977 Airstream Sovereign. It is pretty much gutted, ready for my PTT interior.

1977 Airstream Sovereign

The Airstream search was a fluke but (maybe) a good one. If I can buy a shell for around the cost of building it, it means not having to source a flatbed trailer, not having to build and finish the shell, and still getting a layout I like. And Airstreams are nice looking. I don’t see much downside, other than fitting the interior through the door, if the fuel economy works out.

“How will you fit your desk and chair and all the stuff you usually carry with you? And SWMBO?” Liz Arden asked.

Number 1 Daughter has the answer. She is gung ho as long as she gets to design it.

“Just hold your horses. Some of these things have to be run past mom also. This is a project.” SWMBO said.

“Yeah, I’m not a fan of the ‘project’ aspect either. And yes, it would be a project that needs to be completely laid out before anything should start,” Number 1 daughter said. “But mommy, my girlfriend and I would love to decorate something for you as a surprise. Wouldn’t you love that, mommy?”

<le sigh>

I am envisioning shabby chic here.

The desk’n’stuff will be done the same way I plan it for the PTT: I have in mind to do a Harper-bed (a Murphy bed concept but hinged for the space actually available) and have a shelf in the “bedroom” and a rolling desk chair that can come in there so I have a cave of my own.

Problem. Newbies typically keep their first camper for a year or two while they figure out what they really want.


I built a spreadsheet so I could obsess on my 4-1/2 camperish choices:

  • Rebuild an Airstream
  • Buy some kind of ready-to-go Travel Trailer
  • Build the perfect Travel Trailer
  • Buy a Bus, meaning a Class C or Class A RV.

I suppose I could even add “Build the Perfect Bus” to the list. Nah.

Lots of advantages for each.

  • I like like the perfect layout and the cachet of the big Airstream but at least a year and more likely two to finish and 11-12 mpg.
  • I like the instant gratification of buying something ready-to-go but 10-11 mpg.
  • I like like like perfect layout and the “I did it” gratification of the PTT but at least a year and more likely two to finish. Maybe as much as 15-16 mpg.
  • I like the cellar space of a Class A as well as the added square footage upstairs but any repairs require a truck facility, it gets lousy mileage, and requires serious insurance.
  • I like the ability to repair of the Class C in a local garage but I’d need 30′ LOA to fit stuff in.

Then I thought about my To Do list.

If I want to do any travel this year or next, I need to stop thinking and simply buy some kind of ready-to-go Travel Trailer that allows me to crawl in and sleep in a parking lot. Or do a quickie conversion of an enclosed cargo trailer.

“I guess realistically you could ‘camp’ in a relatively bare but roadworthy shell,” SWMBO said. Note the emphasis on the “you.” And she figures it would be primitive… “The mattress-on-the-floor bed isn’t bad but cooking would be limited unless you had a working generator so you could nuke and hot-plate and have a portable propane grill. Working fridge is a must and you really need that to be propane unless you can find a fridge that runs from an inverter and lots of batteries.”

It finally occurred to me that I can carry a lot of stuff like the pantry and freezer in the truck that I’d planned to store (somewhere) in the trailer. Modern 60-something quart freezers take 5-6 amps at 12VDC so the truck can power that easily underway and a pair of 50Ah deep cycle house batteries would easily carry the trailer and freezer load overnight. Run the genny only for boondocking.

“Be nice if the bathroom worked,” SWMBO muttered.

Most 50s-60s campers and boats (and 50s-60s-70s-80s-maybe-90s Airstreams) were primitive. The beds were little more than a foam pad on the floor and cooking was limited although my mom did pretty darned well on a propane camp stove on the little boat and a two-burner alcohol stove on the Richardson. Shore power takes care of A/C, frig, nuke, water heater, and heck even an electric cooktop if you want. I will definitely go all-electric in the PTT and probably would do so even in a little tag along.

The Streams
I found a pair of 25′ Airstreams over in New Hampshire.

The first is a 1970. 46 years old. The major systems — converter, water heater, furnace, toilet — appear to work. Road debris shattered the curved, right front window. There is no a/c. All the roof vents are caulked. The seller wasn’t sure about the operation of the gray water tank. Cosmetics are poor. The shell is dull, not bright, aluminum and the plastic parts are brittle. The tambour doors are troublesome. The awning needs replacement.

The second, a 1973, is only 43 years old. Its water heater and furnace appear to work and someone replaced the converter with an inverter but it still doesn’t make 110 from 12v to run the frig. A/C is icy. The shell is nice, bright, aluminum and the rivet joints are sound. The plastic parts are brittle. The tambour doors are troublesome.

On inspection, I found that all aluminum Airstreams have a boatload of steel in them. Every bit of it is on these was well and truly rusted.

These trailers also have a boatload of room and storage, partly because the beds are so small. The bathroom in the ’70 is bigger than mine down south.

I like the ’70 layout better.

All in all, it was a good trip because I didn’t buy either of them. In fact, it would now take special circumstances for me to by a 60s or 70s trailer. Simply too many pieces parts are about to fail after that many years. I reckon I’d be comfortable after a frame-off restoration.

Wot to do, wot to do.

The Not So PTT
Now we get to the challenging part.

7x14 Cargo Trailer cum Little House

I still like to design and build things. Engineer, remember?

I can fit SWMBO and everything I have to carry and even an RV-size washer-dryer into a cargo trailer. There’s room for the three-esses, room to cook, room to sleep, room to poke a ‘puter. There is not room to change your mind.

It’s about a three-week build.

Dixon makes a decent 7×14 Cargo Trailer with windows, torsion axles, and a real plywood floor somewhere down there in Georgia. I’ve been watching the ads up here, though, because I have stuff to haul down from here that would be a lot easier and safer to do with a cargo trailer. In fact, just Saturday, SWMBO saw a nice (used) frig and said, “Don’t you need a refrigerator with a bottom freezer down there?”

The only reason this project works is because I want a cargo trailer because I somehow keep hauling crap around. So. Room for cargo.

Cargo Space in the 7x14 Cargo Trailer

Note that I am well aware that either this $5-10,000 solution or the PTT will still take two years to build and cost me twice as much in twice as much gas as just driving, all so I can save $30-40/night on motel rooms and sleep in a Walmart parking lot for free!

Stay tuned.