Two environmental groups have filed a federal lawsuit against Stanford University for allegedly harming the threatened steelhead trout by maintaining Searsville Dam, the groups announced Tuesday, Jan. 29.
Our Children's Earth Foundation and the Ecological Rights Foundation filed the suit against the university because the groups say Stanford is in violation of the Endangered Species Act. Stanford acquired Searsville reservoir and dam in 1919.
The university receives about 20 percent of its water for golf course, landscaping and athletic field irrigation and for backup fire protection from the reservoir. Steelhead, which have been listed as an endangered species since 1997, cannot scale the dam to swim upstream to spawn.
Other federally protected species, such as the California red legged frog and the San Francisco garter snake, have also been negatively impacted and are decreasing in numbers because of the creek's altered habitat, the environmental groups said.
The suit claims that the primary causes of degraded habitat conditions in the San Francisquito Creek watershed are the presence of Searsville Dam and Stanford's diversion of excessive water from the watershed above the dam.
The diversion has reduced water flow in the creek dramatically, changing the amount of vegetation, which has degraded water quality. The shallower creek is prone to solar radiation, which heats the water, and warmer water temperatures reduce dissolved oxygen levels that are needed for life in the creek, environmentalists said.
The Endangered Species Act does not allow "taking" of protected species, which includes causing habitat degradation that leads to the demise of a population or individual protected creature. Searsville Dam and Reservoir also create artificial habitat where predatory species of fish thrive. Stanford has no fish screen where it diverts the water.
The sediment problems the dam creates have also created unsuitable habitat for the steelhead, which interferes with egg laying in gravel and reduces access to food sources the fish rely on, the environmentalists said.
The groups say Stanford cannot legally operate and maintain Searsville Dam and Reservoir without a permit issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service. Such a permit, if granted, would impose important requirements on Stanford to protect the fish, the groups said.
The lawsuit seeks to require that Stanford apply for the Endangered Species Act permit, curb its diversion of water from San Francisquito Creek, complete studies in ways to ensure that the steelhead can access the upper watershed above the dam, and implement remedial measures to secure that the steelhead can reach the upper watershed.
Environmentalists drew battle lines earlier this month after a complaint to federal authorities led to an investigation for alleged Endangered Species Act violations.
Beyond Searsville Dam and other organizations complained to the National Marine Fisheries Service, which has confirmed it is looking into investigating whether the impediment to the fish constitutes a "taking" of the species that would violate the Endangered Species Act.
Beyond Searsville Dam and others have long sought to have the dam removed.
The 120-year-old dam, which was built between 1888 and 1892 by the private Spring Valley Water Company, has been silting up since it began operations, and the university is researching whether it should be removed or allowed to silt up entirely, or if water from San Francisquito creek should be diverted to another location, such as Felt Lake.
During a Jan. 16 tour of the dam and reservoir, Stanford spokeswoman Jean McCown, who is on the advisory task force looking into the many alternatives, said the federal investigation would not sway Stanford from taking a "responsible approach" to seeking a solution that would satisfy the many concerns the project poses. The university has been working regularly with the National Marine Fisheries Service on the project, but the investigation is coming out of a separate law-enforcement branch, she said.
Stanford officials said they are also concerned about what impacts removing the dam would have on downstream flooding. Palo Alto, Menlo Park and East Palo Alto have all built out into areas adjacent to the creek.
But Fredric Evenson, director of the Ecological Rights Foundation, said that claim is spurious.
"Stanford's flood control argument is a red herring. If there's any threat to downstream residents, it's the dam that was built over one hundred years ago and sits atop the San Andreas Fault," he said.
McCown said by email on Wednesday that the university has not seen the lawsuit but it is unnecessary and will not make a constructive contribution to the work Stanford is already committed to with regard to Searsville.
"Stanford is not in violation of the Endangered Species Act through the presence or operation of Searsville Dam. Stanford is a careful environmental steward of its land and is working with many constituents, including the relevant federal, state and local agencies, led by faculty environmental experts, in a thoughtful and thorough study of the complex issues surrounding the dam and alternatives for its future," McCown said.
"We know very little about the organizations who have filed this lawsuit. They have not contacted us over the last 18 months as we have been doing the Searsville Alternatives Study.
"When we learned of their threat to sue, we offered to meet but they declined to do so. In contrast we have been actively engaged with knowledgeable local environmental organizations such as the Committee for Green Foothills, Santa Clara Valley Audubon and Acterra, among others," she added.