Matt Stoecker spent his childhood tromping around in the creeks of the San Franciquito watershed where he grew up, hunting for frogs, fishing and exploring.
One day in the mid-90s, he found himself below the 65-foot-tall Searsville Dam on the Corte Madera Creek when he experienced a seminal moment: He saw a 30-inch steelhead jump out of the water and smash itself against the dam.
He had never seen a fish that size in the creek, and he was struck at the power and futility he witnessed.
Stoecker soon began volunteering with the San Francisquito Watershed Council, then started a steelhead task force and has been working to remove small dams and other fish barriers in the watershed ever since.
But all along, he said, “Searsville Dam was the biggest limiting factor.”
The dam, which is owned by Stanford University, was recently pushed into the spotlight because of a major sedimentation problem in the reservoir, a large-scale study of the dam, a federal investigation into possible violations of the Endangered Species Act and a lawsuit against Stanford.
While university officials argue that dismantling the dam could jeopardize the reservoir’s riparian ecosystems and threaten downstream communities, Stoecker and other environmentalists say it’s been blocking fish passage for too long and it’s time for the dam to come down.
“It’s an antiquated, environmentally harmful reservoir that’s at the end of its useful life,” Stoecker said.
Searsville Dam and Reservoir sit amid the oak stands and serpentine grasslands of the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, a 1,189-acre outdoor laboratory used by Stanford University for research and education. The reservoir, which was created by the damming of Corte Madera Creek in 1892, was acquired by Stanford in 1919. Today it serves to store non-potable water for landscape irrigation at the school.
San Francisquito Creek contains one of the last wild steelhead runs in the South San Francisco Bay, but Searsville Dam directly blocks their annual migration upstream to approximately 20 miles of former spawning and rearing habitat. Photo: Matt Stoecker
But over the years, the reservoir has filled with an estimated 1.5 million cubic yards of silts, gravels and woody debris that have cost it more than 90 percent of its original capacity. Some experts estimate that the reservoir could fill entirely within a decade. Along with loss of the reservoir, sedimentation behind the dam threatens surrounding communities with possible flooding.
The sedimentation issue helped prompt Stanford to form a 12-person steering committee in 2011 to study its options. The study is examining such things as Stanford’s long-term water needs, fish passage, flood risks, the costs of dredging and the impact on university research programs.
According to Stanford, expert consultants are studying a number of options, including dredging, allowing the reservoir to continue to fill and transition to a marsh, modifying the dam and removing the dam altogether.
“From my perspective, the overall goal is to figure out what is the best, most responsible way to manage this watershed,” said Chris Field, faculty director of Jasper Ridge and professor of biology and of environmental Earth system science, who co-chairs the steering committee. “It’s a lot to learn and, at least for me, it’s important that we do a really good, thorough job … My feeling is that these issues are ones that have taken decades to build up, and we want to make sure any course of action we recommend is thought through deeply and also recognizes all the stakeholders.”
Complicating the issue is the role the reservoir plays in the preserve.
The reservoir, Field said, is home to beautiful open water and wetland habitats used by a large number of nesting and migratory birds. It sustains habitats for diverse plants and animals, including bats, salamanders and fish. It has also served the university as a living classroom for many years.
Despite that, Field said, the university “doesn’t have a preset goal of preserving the lake.”
Stanford anticipates completing the initial set of studies and recommendations in 2014. Its president and provost will ultimately decide how to act on them.
Stoecker, who is now a biologist, had been pushing for a deeper look at Searsville Dam long before the school initiated its study.
In 1999 he helped start a steelhead task force for the San Francisquito Watershed Council, which identified Searsville as the biggest barrier to migrating steelhead in the watershed, a primary source of non-native species and a principle contributor to the degradation of habitat. In 2001, along with Stanford and others, he helped form the Searsville Dam Working Group. It got the California Department of Water Resources to offer to fund an analysis of options for the dam — an offer Stanford declined.
“Since then, every time we tried to bring up finding a Searsville solution that worked for everyone, folks from Stanford didn’t want to talk about it,” Stoecker said.
Searsville Dam was built by the Spring Valley Water Company to supply drinking water to residents of the San Francisco Peninsula, but it never did. Instead, Stoecker said, for more than a century it has impeded fish passage to historic habitat, dewatered downstream creeks and blocked the transport of gravels, woody debris and sediment that is vital to a healthy river system and the San Francisco Bay. The reservoir flooded and buried a valley where several streams once merged among wetlands and riparian forests, and has created an artificial habitat for non-native and invasive species.
Native rainbow trout (descendants of sea-run steelhead) persist in creeks upstream of Searsville, but are at risk of being wiped out due to inbreeding caused by the impassable dam and lack of returning steelhead to maintain genetic diversity. Photo: Matt Stoecker
“Each year as it fills in more and more, it becomes less useful, more problematic and more expensive to fix,” Stoecker said, adding that Searsville provides a small amount of water to the university, which has plenty of options for water storage that do not imperil wildlife.
“There are definitely better and less harmful ways of getting water and eliminating the need for this dam,” he said. “Based on other projects that have happened or are under way, and on studies from our nation’s top scientists, dam removal and low-impact water supply upgrades are preferable in terms of benefit to the ecosystem, surrounding communities and Stanford.”
Steve Rothert, California director of American Rivers, who also grew up upstream of the dam, said Stanford has “time and again missed opportunities to take initiative and take a leadership role in this.
“I think Stanford has a phenomenal opportunity to create another broad set of studies that would be associated with the changes that would take place with removal of the dam and recovery of the natural ecosystem,” he said.
Rothert said he is encouraged by Stanford’s current study, and thinks the committee consists of capable and committed people. But, he said, the fate of the reservoir is ultimately up to university officials, not steering committee members, and the university has appeared reluctant to open up the process.
For Rothert, the study would ideally lead to a project that provides fish with unhindered access to the upper basin, the safe transport of sediment and wood and water downstream, and provides Stanford with the opportunity “to regain a principled posture on this issue that is consistent with its image as a leader in science.”
In January, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) announced it is investigating whether Stanford is violating the Endangered Species Act (ESA) through its operation of Searsville Dam. Steelhead in this watershed are considered “threatened,” and as such, have been protected since 1997 under the ESA. (A “take” is an action that kills, harms or harasses a threatened or endangered species.)
Following that news, two environmental groups — Our Children’s Earth Foundation and the Ecological Rights Foundation — filed a suit against the university alleging it is violating the ESA for harming steelhead trout.
Stanford officials have expressed confidence that the school has not violated the act.
“The university believes that it is in full compliance with the Endangered Species Act and all local, state and federal laws in its operations of Searsville Dam and Reservoir,” states a FAQ put together by Stanford.
But Stoecker and Rothert, along with their legal team, disagree.
“There are clear impacts on the fish from blocked passage to dewatered habitat that we think constitute a violation of the ESA,” Rothert said. “We think the situation definitely warrants an investigation.”
Update 2/27/13: Two wild steelhead were filmed spawning downstream of Stanford’s Searsville Dam on San Francisquito Creek. Watch the video. Photo: D. Rundle
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