Stanford University sued over Searsville Dam

Environmentalists draw battle lines with federal lawsuit, complaint leading to investigation for alleged Endangered Species Act violations

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.

Related story:

Stanford officials look to solve Searsville dilemma

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Like this comment
Posted by stall stall stall
a resident of Stanford
on Jan 30, 2013 at 12:01 pm

This has been a known problem for decades and Stanford did nothing. Why can't Stanford take action without having to get sued?

Like this comment
Posted by Tan Dah!
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 30, 2013 at 12:14 pm

Stanford thinks it is omnipotent. I am glad to hear they are being taken to court over this. Maybe if they lose, it will take some of the wind out of their sails.

Like this comment
Posted by Darn
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 30, 2013 at 12:48 pm

It is pretty silly on Stanford's part to try and ignore the situation for so long. Now they must pay the piper. Its really hard to argue about the threat of flood from a 120 old dam on the SA fault (thought that was kinda funny).
There's really no great mystery on what to do here...very old dams are being being removed all over the country. Its just time to do it here now.

Like this comment
Posted by Steve Rothert
a resident of another community
on Jan 30, 2013 at 1:04 pm

I represent American Rivers, one of the groups working to address the problems caused by Searsville for fish and the creek. We appreciate the attention to this issue, but I would like to clarify that Beyond Searsville Dam coalition is not responsible for the National Marine Fisheries Service - they initiated the investigation independently.

In addition, American Rivers' primary interest is not dam removal but to restore steelhead above Searsville Dam, which can be done in a number of ways from constructing fish ladders or fishways to dam removal.

The primary reason for the decline of steelhead and salmon populations in California is the loss of access to suitable spawning habitat caused by dams like Searsville. If California wants to protect its heritage of salmon and steelhead and the jobs these fish support, we have to get them back to their home waters.

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 30, 2013 at 1:04 pm

Hetch Hetchy first.

Like this comment
Posted by Nate
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 30, 2013 at 1:16 pm

@Steve R. Good points. Much can be done, even w/out removal of the dam, to achieve the goal of increasing anadromous fish spawning habitat.

@musical, act locally

Like this comment
Posted by Wondering?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 30, 2013 at 3:49 pm

One has to wonder--just how important is the so-called steelhead trout? Does it contribute to the Bay Area economy? What will this environmentalist attack on Stanford cost all of us in the long run? And what are we going to get back in the long run?

Some of these laws need to be rethought, in light of some sort of rational cost/benefit analysis.

Like this comment
Posted by Jen
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jan 30, 2013 at 7:46 pm

The steelhead trout contributed a lot to the area - back when they were plentiful, people caught and ate them. It's really sad that steelhead have been missing from the creek for so long that Wondering? is more concerned about Stanford's pocketbook than the fish that used to support so many other species, including people.

Like this comment
Posted by Wondering?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 31, 2013 at 2:35 pm

> It's really sad that steelhead have been missing from
> the creek for so long

If the dam has been around since before 1919, that's almost a hundred years. The Steelhead obviously didn't go immediately extinct. But more to the point, people obviously found something else to eat.

Human/wildlife conflicts are always going to occur. At their heyday the American Buffalo was supposed to be about 65M in number. Got any idea what life would be like in the US today with 65M+ buffalo roaming the land--tearing through farm land, and towns? As majectic as that beast might have been, there simply was no way modern American could have coexisted with it.

Got to wonder if maybe it's not time to say goodbye to tis species too?

Like this comment
Posted by Eric
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 31, 2013 at 3:42 pm

Good thing we took out those savage buffalo, else they would still be out there laying dangerous methane emitting cow pies - and the threats to public sanitation, what if we stepped in it? :)

Anyone with a basic understanding of ecology knows that you do not look at just the steelhead and it's economic or substance relationship to people - so please don't weaken the argument by saying 'people could be eating them'.

However, they could be important to the control of aquatic invertebrates - maybe they eat mosquito larvae that could be vectors for West Nile Virus? Maybe there are some larger marine organisms that rely on steelhead for their food source, and are in turn dwindling in numbers?

Ecosystems have complex interactions and relationships that are not always obvious, they have grown and adapted to the conditions of SF Creek for thousands and thousands of years - well before westerners arrived. A dam with no alternative means for getting the fish up to their spawning grounds was installed in a few short years, these fish never stood a chance.

Like this comment
Posted by Wondering?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 31, 2013 at 4:30 pm

> Ecosystems have complex interactions and relationships that
> are not always obvious,

That's true. But what's also true is these ecosystems are always in flux. There is no such thing as "eco-stasis". Species are constantly coming and going, sometimes with dramatic speed.

The tendency for modern "environmentalists" to try to preserve the status quo has led to public policy decisions that have backfired. Example--anti-logging efforts have led to forests not be "cleaned" of deadwood, and the like. Result--massive wildfires that ended up being almost uncontainable.

Congress needs to rethink some of the "enabling" laws that allow concerned parties that do not have any hard proof of system damage due to the displacement of a species to tie up construction projects, or force unnecessary destruction of dams.

Like this comment
Posted by Kathryn
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jan 31, 2013 at 7:41 pm

@ Wondering - We are talking about wildlife. not opening a restaraunt or buying stock for our kids futures. They are fish, who have a RIGHT as LIFE to LIVE, and this dam got in the way. By right of nature's right to EXSIST - they matter.

Like this comment
Posted by clc
a resident of another community
on Feb 1, 2013 at 7:26 am

The issue's have been well studied and documented. Time to take action.

Like this comment
Posted by Eric
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 1, 2013 at 10:22 am


Your arguments hold less water than the future area above the Searsville Dam (did you see what I did just there :)

You are right, ecosystems are in flux - but these changes are responses to changes in the environment due to things like weather, catastrophic weather, seasonality, you know - natural occurrences. Plopping a dam down with no means for the fish to reach their spawning beds is not a normal part of the flux. It is a man-made modification, not a part of the flux. Maybe the fish will see things your way and grow wings and fly over the dam?

Your second point, if we can call it a point, which it is not because you probably have a very thin understanding of modern forestry practices. Now we are blaming the environmentalists for wildfires?

For one thing, governmental natural resource management agencies like the US Forest Service and Cal. State Parks, do regularly perform deadwood salvage operations to clear SOME dead wood - although some standing dead wood does provide habitat for species like woodpeckers. They also do things like thinning the forest to create 'defensible space' to prevent wildfires from burning too hot and turning catastrophic.

In fact the major cause behind such massive wildfires is due to the fire suppression or wildland firefighting that USED to be a regular practice for USFS and the NPS. Until we realized that practice was causing undergrowth to create ladder fuels which were in turn burning the crown of the tree and forest. So through science, we were able to figure out this is not a healthy practice and we no longer due this.

Try researching fire ecology. You would have been better served by using the case study of the spotted owl - an actual example of an endangered species issue that was created by 'environmentalists' to stop logging, which then turned against them.

Source? A science degree in forestry and over 10 years in the field. Try backing your opinions with accurate examples and not stale misguided anecdotes

Like this comment
Posted by Eric
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 1, 2013 at 10:27 am

Also eco-stasis is not real word or a concept, I could only find reference to it on the urban dictionary, maybe that is where you get most of your arguments and research from?

Like this comment
Posted by FrankF
a resident of Ventura
on Feb 1, 2013 at 11:58 am

FrankF is a registered user.

Does any get the irony that had there not been a Stanford at all - or this creek was outside of their boundaries this creek would be paved - like most of the rest of them around here.

Yet they are being sued. While the fact that it has steelhead at all shows it's in better condition than most in the area. Not to say Stanford is perfect by any means.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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