This California Dam Towers Over the Hoover Dam: Meet the Oroville Dam

Written by Lex Basu
Updated: May 30, 2023
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Key Points

  • The Oroville is the biggest Dam in the US, standing at 770 feet in height.
  • In 2017 the Oroville dam was damaged due to heavy rainfall and around 180,000 people had to be evacuated.
  • The dam was created on the lake Oroville, which is the second-largest water reservoir in the state of California.

If you enjoy engineering marvels, it won’t surprise you that several outstanding American dams serve as significant tourist destinations in addition to their job of controlling water flow. And at the top of this list comes the Oroville Dam. Being the tallest highest Earth-fill dam in the U.S., it’s an impressive structure that stands 770 feet high!

While the Hoover Dam may have been thought to be the tallest by many, this isn’t the case. It takes top honors, with its height reaching 726.6 feet above sea level, not including any appendant structures, like those used during construction (which account for its height).

About the Oroville Dam

The Oroville Dam is a concrete gravity dam in the Feather River watershed of California, at the border of Butte County and Plumas County. It is the tallest dam in the United States and one of the largest dams in the world.

The Oroville Dam impounds Lake Oroville, the second-largest man-made lake in California, with a capacity of 3.5 million acre-feet. The dam provides flood control for the Feather River basin and hydroelectric power generation.

It is also a part of the California State Water Project. A critical part of California’s water infrastructure, it provides irrigation water for more than 1 million acres of farmland and drinking water for 23 million people. It was constructed between 1962 and 1968 at $1.1 billion.

The project was plagued by cost overruns, lawsuits, and labor disputes. The construction of the Oroville Dam was a massive undertaking that required heavy machinery, a large workforce, and a lot of time and money.

The Oroville Dam consists of an Earth-fill embankment dam and a concrete gravity dam. The earthen portion of the dam is responsible for storing most of the water, while the concrete section protects against overtopping. Together, these two components make the Oroville Dam one of the most important engineering feats in American history.

Unfortunately, the dam has suffered several catastrophic failures in recent years.

Most notably, in February 2017, the Oroville Dam experienced its first major failure in its 50-year history, when an uncontrolled release of water from the reservoir forced the evacuation of more than 188,000 people downstream. The crisis was averted when repairs were made to the damaged spillway, but not before the incident caused more than $1 billion in damage.

Oroville Dam

The Oroville Dam is the tallest dam in the U.S.!

©Joe Woods/

Reasons Behind the Construction of the Oroville Dam

The dam was built in response to California’s growing demand for water. The state’s population was rapidly expanding, and there was a need for additional water resources. The Oroville Dam is a reliable water source for agricultural, urban, and domestic uses for California residents.

California has survived the state’s recurring droughts because of water held behind the Oroville Dam. But, by early October 2021, a severe two-year drought had reduced the water storage behind the Oroville Dam to 22% of its maximum level.

It is also a key part of the state’s flood control system. The California Department of Water Resources built the Oroville Dam; construction work on the dam began in 1961 and was completed in 1968. The Oroville Dam provides crucial flood control for Northern California.

In addition to its primary purpose, the Oroville Dam also provides hydroelectric power to the surrounding area. Despite the high cost, the Oroville Dam has served its purpose well and has been an asset to the state of California.

About the Hoover Dam

Constructed during the Great Depression, the Hoover Dam is a marvel of engineering. Spanning 1,244 feet across, this dam impounds the Colorado River, creating Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States.

Hoover Dam was completed in 1936. Its purpose was to provide irrigation water and hydroelectric power. It also regulated the flooding of the Colorado River.

It took more than 21,000 workers to build the dam, and their efforts resulted in a functional and aesthetically pleasing structure. Today, the Hoover Dam continues to provide hydroelectric power and irrigation water for much of the southwestern United States.

It is also a popular tourist destination, attracting more than one million visitors annually. As one of the most impressive feats of engineering in American history, the Hoover Dam is truly a sight to behold.

Today serves the purposes it was designed for. Hoover Dam is one of the United States’ tallest dams. As a National Historic Landmark, it attracts visitors from all over the world every year. It also provides water storage, flood control, and irrigation along the lower Colorado River.

Hoover Dam, The United States

The Hoover Dam is the second-largest dam in the U.S.

© Pavone

Reasons Behind the Construction of the Hoover Dam

While the Hoover Dam was originally built for flood control and irrigation, it now serves a vital role in generating electricity for millions of people in the southwestern United States. Here are three of the main reasons behind the construction of the Hoover Dam.

First, the Hoover Dam was built to allow for the development of the Colorado River Basin. Before its construction, there was little regulation of the river, which often caused devastating floods. The dam helped control these floods by impounding water in Lake Mead and releasing it slowly over time.

Second, the Hoover Dam is part of a larger effort to irrigate land in the Southwest. By storing water in Lake Mead, the dam made it possible to irrigate nearly 2 million acres of land. This irrigation has transformed desert regions into productive agricultural areas.

Finally, the Hoover Dam was built to generate hydroelectric power. The dam’s turbines provide power for more than 1 million homes in Arizona, Nevada, and California.

Differences Between the Oroville Dam and Hoover Dam

The two most famous dams in America are the Oroville Dam and the Hoover Dam. The Hoover Dam was built during the Great Depression as part of massive public works projects designed to create jobs and generate hydroelectric power. Oroville Dam was built between 1961-1968.


The Oroville Dam is taller than the Hoover Dam. It is also located on a much larger river, the Feather River in Northern California, while the Hoover Dam is on the smaller Colorado River in Nevada. The Oroville Dam’s reservoir, Lake Oroville, is also much larger than Lake Mead, behind the Hoover Dam.

Water Capacity

The Hoover Dam can hold back the highest volume of water despite being the second tallest structure in the country. The Hoover Dam, located on Lake Mead, has an incredible capacity to hold 8.95 cubic miles of water at once. Lake Mead is one of the most significant reservoirs in the nation and the largest in terms of water capacity.

The State Water Project’s main and biggest water reservoir attraction is Oroville Dam. At the convergence of the Feather River, about 70 miles north of Sacramento, the Oroville Dam builds a reservoir with a capacity of 3.5 million acre-feet.

Construction Method

Another key difference is that the Hoover Dam was built with concrete, while the Oroville Dam’s inner core is made of Earth and rock. This different construction method means that the Oroville Dam can flex and move during an earthquake, while the concrete Hoover Dam would be more likely to sustain damage.


Each dam has a different design. The Oroville Dam is an Earth-fill dam, while the Hoover Dam is a concrete arch dam. The Oroville Dam is also located in a more seismically active area. That meant the engineers had to make special engineering considerations during construction.

The Hoover Dam is in a much drier climate, which helped to reduce the risk of flooding during construction. Both dams are essential for providing water and power to nearby communities, but the Oroville Dam is currently undergoing significant repairs due to damage caused by recent floods.

So, while both dams are impressive feats of engineering, they have some key differences that set them apart.

Similarities between the Oroville Dam and the Hoover Dam

The Oroville Dam and the Hoover Dam are two of the most iconic dams in the United States. Both were built during the 20th century and helped transform their respective regions.

The Oroville Dam is located in northern California. The Hoover Dam is located on the Colorado River, near the border between Arizona and Nevada. Despite their different locations, the two dams have many similarities.

For instance, both dams are concrete gravity dams and are more than 700 feet tall. Additionally, the government built both dams for irrigation and power generation purposes.

Both dams have also had their share of challenges. The Oroville Dam experienced a spillway failure in 2017. The Hoover Dam was temporarily closed due to high water levels in 2019.

Closing Thoughts

So, which dam is better? That really depends on how you quantify “better.” If you want the tallest dam in the country, then Oroville is your best bet. But if you’re looking for a massive structure with a long history, then Hoover Dam is a great choice. These dams are worth a visit if you want to see an impressive body of engineering with a rich history.

Where is the Oroville Dam Located on a Map?

The Oroville Dam is situated east of Oroville, California, on the Feather River in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada range and east of the Sacramento Valley. This dam, which is an earth fill embankment dam, is the tallest dam in the United States, standing at a height of 770 feet. It is primarily used for water supply, generating hydroelectricity, and controlling floods.

Here is Oroville Dam on a map:

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Joe Woods/

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About the Author

Lex is a green-living, tree-hugging, animal-lover, who at one time was the mother to twenty one felines and one doggo. Now she helps pet owners around the globe be the best caretakers for their most trusting companions by sharing her experience and spreading love.

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