Palo Alto Weekly

News - April 16, 2010

Activist group targets Searsville Dam

Proponents of plan to remove dam aim to pressure Stanford University

by Sue Dremann

Saying the time is now to get Stanford University to commit to demolishing Searsville Dam, a group of local activists galvanized more than 200 people at a kickoff event Tuesday evening.

Beyond Searsville Dam Coalition, spearheaded by Portola Valley native Matt Stoecker, talked to a crowd that packed the outdoor-gear store Patagonia on Alma Street in Palo Alto, which hosted the event.

The dam, built by the Crystal Springs Water Company in the foothills and completed in 1892, is the biggest limiting factor to steelhead trout spawning in San Francisquito Creek and its tributaries. It blocks 10 miles of habitat, he said.

Stoecker has been waging a lonely campaign for 10 years, ever since he saw a steelhead vainly try to breach the 60-plus-foot-high dam.

Stanford is currently seeking approval for a 50-year Habitat Conservation Plan from federal and state officials that would be the guiding principle of conservation, restoration and areas of potential development.

Stoecker and his supporters want Stanford to put dismantling the dam into the Habitat Conservation Plan, he said.

Stanford, however, favors keeping the dam, a position favored by scientists at Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, where Searsville Dam is located, just south of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.

Stanford favors removing the sediment that has built up in the past 118 years. About 90 percent of the dam's water-holding capacity is blocked with sediment. The dam is expected to top off with sediment in 15 to 40 years, according to scientific reports.

Jean McCown, a Stanford spokeswoman, said the Habitat Conservation Plan commits the university to a study of the dam in 10 years.

The university has been considering what to do with the dam since at least the late 1990s. A position paper by the Stanford's Jasper Ridge Advisory Committee called removing the dam "a highly experimental project" that would be "complex and challenging."

Philippe Cohen, administrative director of Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, said that conditions have changed since the dam was built. The area downstream from the dam has grown much more populated and residential.

The main problem with removing the dam today is that sediment currently being held back behind the dam would flow further downstream, through creeks in Woodside, Portola Valley and Palo Alto, then further through the San Francisquito Creek to East Palo Alto and the San Francisco Bay. No one knows exactly what that would mean for residents, Cohen said.

"With the change in the amount of sediment, how it's going to change flooding is a really tricky question," he said.

But Steve Rothert, California regional director of American Rivers, which has helped get numerous dams removed, said Tuesday night there are ways to prevent downstream problems after the dam is removed.

Computer modeling for other projects proved to be accurate in predicting where problems could occur, he said.

Taking steps to ease sediment and flooding problems for the similarly sized San Clemente Dam in the Carmel area costs an estimated $70 to $80 million. Much of the costs are paid for by funding from federal, state and private sources, he said.

Stanford hasn't been passive when it comes to the dam, however. Its Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering has been working on studies in the last four years related to the accumulation and management of sediments and how water flows through the system.

Researchers hope their work will help make management decisions about the dam.

Stoecker and Rothert said their groups will try to pressure Stanford, holding informational meetings, engaging residents in letter-writing campaigns, adding a legal and outreach component and forming student-based groups.

"We have an amazing opportunity to improve the watershed health," he said.

Other longtime watershed supporters are not yet committing to a position on the dam. The nonprofit Committee for Green Foothills was considering taking a position a few months ago but decided not to until the factors related to downstream flooding are known, said Lennie Roberts, San Mateo County advocate for the committee.

There needs to be much more study of the potential impacts, she said.

"There are a lot of countervailing concerns," she added.

A longer version of this article is posted on Palo Alto Online.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be e-mailed at sdremann@paweekly.com.

Comments

Posted by Jane, a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 14, 2010 at 10:25 am

It's easy to fire up a group of people around what seems a good cause. This article is well written to give a balanced point of view. Good people with the right values can see good reasons not to remove the dam because of the initial situation rather than today's situation, which has changed.


Posted by janet, a resident of Menlo Park
on Apr 14, 2010 at 10:50 am

The entire downstream area from the dam is clearly shown on the 1986 San Mateo County General Plan to be an inundation hazard area because of the potential for dam failure. The county has, for decades, been negligent in allowing construction in that area, and several people over the years have been foolhardy enough to build out even into the creek channel. Now they complain that the are subject to flooding! There IS however, an environmental issue with respect to the wetland that has been created because of the sedimentation, and an issue of what to do with the sediment. It is a complicated issue and one that needs a lot of study, not just by Stanford. Hopefully there will be some resolution before the dam fails. Matt is doing everyone a service by shining a spotlight on the issue


Posted by qq, a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 14, 2010 at 11:22 am

Can we also put the mouth of the creek back where it was and flush out our natural harbor?

Web Link

qq


Posted by Howard, a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 14, 2010 at 11:30 am

The danger of dam failure is extremely low. The dam is made from huge blocks of Granite that sit one on top of the other and form a kind of horizontal-oriented keystone arch. Even a large earthquake would just shuffle the blocks around a bit, and the chance of collapse is extremely low even then.
In contrast, the idea of removing the silt is absurd. It would take a year or more even if a continuous stream of dump trucks, 24 hours a day, were used to haul the silt from the dam site to the dump site (and where in the world would that be?)


Posted by Beth, a resident of Stanford
on Apr 14, 2010 at 11:31 am

I've patrolled the dam area as a JRBP ranger. It's beautiful. The ecosystem around the dam (except for the fish, of course) appears to have adapted to its presence. Tearing it out would change the area immensely and probably disrupt a lot of the experiments that are being conducted there.

However, its failure would be far worse. I hope a solution can be agreed upon and funded before that happens. I worry that both sides will instead fight until it fails.

Any chance of installing a fish ladder?


Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 14, 2010 at 12:49 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

This dam, and Chrystal Springs, survived the big one so I am not concerned about seismic problems. The rational solution is to install a mud siphon that will entrain a silt load and carry it downstream.


Posted by William, a resident of Stanford
on Apr 14, 2010 at 1:27 pm

If they don't remove the dam, constructing a bypass or ladder for steelhead to navigate should be required. Birds and waterfowl can fly and select another body of water, Steehead with dna programmed to the water here cannot.


Posted by Matt Stoecker, a resident of Portola Valley
on Apr 14, 2010 at 4:25 pm

Thanks for a well written article Sue.

Howard- A couple comments to your statements above.

Howard-"The danger of dam failure is extremely low. The dam is made from huge blocks of Granite that sit one on top of the other and form a kind of horizontal-oriented keystone arch. Even a large earthquake would just shuffle the blocks around a bit, and the chance of collapse is extremely low even then."

Matt- The dam is made of concrete, not granite, and the foundation has not been thoroughly inspected by the Division of Safety of Dams for 43 years. They have asked for this inspection 3 years ago.

Howard- "In contrast, the idea of removing the silt is absurd. It would take a year or more even if a continuous stream of dump trucks, 24 hours a day, were used to haul the silt from the dam site to the dump site (and where in the world would that be?)"

Matt- We have never advocated for a particular sediment management alternative such as trucking it all away, nor would we want to see it go to a dump. Options would likely include keeping much of it in place and stabilized with existing vegetation and habitat in place. Some sediment may be moved to another nearby location such as Webb Rnach for agricultural benefits or to the SF Bay wetland restoration projects, which are in need of millions of cubic yards of sediment and could help pay for the costs. Overall, we are looking to find the plan that will be beneficial to flood protection needs downstream and improve watershed health. We support actions to address the flooding problem, such as levee improvements and new bridges that do not restrict high flows and cause overtopping. Thanks.


Posted by AH, a resident of Portola Valley
on Apr 14, 2010 at 4:28 pm

Thanks for a balanced report of all sides of the issue.
I am thankful that we have amongst us "activists" like Matt and his group that keep the discussion moving forward. What I do know is that these functionally useless dams are coming down all across the country. This one will just take longer, since there are more groups involved, and Stanford (again) will delay until we all pass away.


Posted by Sharon, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 14, 2010 at 7:58 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


Posted by Conway Cruickshank, a resident of Portola Valley
on Dec 14, 2010 at 4:08 pm

The Searville Dam needs to come down. Sooner would be better than later. If 10ft of dam were removed each year then the sediment would be released slowly over time. If at a certain point excessive sediment was released then more than a year between dam removal to allow natural processes to send the excess sediment down stream. Eventually. Nature would restore itself. Some of the blocks of concrete or granite or whatever the dam is made of could be used as structure within the creek to provide cover for fish etc. I don't buy into all the side stepping/ smoke screen Stanford comes up with. I think they are worried more about the bottome line, so funding should be found elsewhere.


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