University Assembles Committee to Resolve Searsville Dam’s Future

April 5, 2011, 2:05 a.m.

Stanford has started assembling a committee for the comprehensive study of Searsville Dam, the contentious landmark in Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve whose future has remained undecided for decades. According to Jasper Ridge Director Philippe Cohen, the committee will decide the fate of the dam within two years.

“We’re in the process of putting together a team,” Cohen said. “This is the first time the University is really trying to take a comprehensive approach to the issue.”

Searsville Dam has blocked Corte Madera Creek since its construction in 1891, creating the Searsville Reservoir. Initially used for recreation, the reservoir is now a part of Jasper Ridge, where it is used in research and teaching.

The dam also blocked off historical steelhead trout habitat in the creeks upstream. Steelhead trout are a nationally threatened species whose preservation Stanford had to address in its Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP). As The Daily reported last May, the HCP did not take a stance on the dam’s fate, saying it was too complex an issue and that addressing it would hold up the rest of the elements of HCP plans.

Not addressing the Searsville dam issue means that “Stanford is going to be causing unpermitted [harm] of endangered species at the dam,” said Matt Stoecker, director of the non-profit Beyond Searsville Dam Coalition.

This puts the University in violation of state water regulations and the Endangered Species Act. Now, the committee will attempt to finally address this issue apart from the total HCP.

“Any decision about significant changes at Searsville is going to take a long time. If the University waited to finish its HCP until after we decided what to do at Searsville, there would be this long period of suspense over managing all the other habitats on campus,” said professor David Freyberg, who studies sedimentation at the site and sits on the Jasper Ridge Advisory Committee.

The committee will be comprised of Stanford faculty and administrators familiar with the issue. Cohen hopes that they will come up with one or two preferred options and some clear, strategic plans for the site.

“We’re taking a very multidisciplinary perspective,” Cohen said. “We’re going to be looking at ecological, hydrological, economic and political — all of the different issues that come to bear on what we do with the dam…at this point, no issues have been removed from the table.”

A position paper put out by the committee in Oct. 2007 outlines many of those options including allowing the lake to naturally fill with sediment, dredging some of the sediment from the lake but keeping the dam, dredging and lowering the dam, or removing the dam altogether. Other considerations include adding a fish ladder for steelhead trout or creating an off-stream reserve for Stanford to maintain its water supply.

A collection of community interests have pushed for removal of the dam for many years. “While I applaud Stanford for forming a committee, American Rivers and Beyond Searsville Dam coalition have been asking Stanford to address the Searsville problem for a decade,” said Steve Rothert, California director of American Rivers.

Cohen outlined that the committee will be a largely internal affair made up of faculty members and Stanford administrators. Public negotiation will take place after they come up with preferred options in the best interest of the University. “I’m not sure how [the University is] going to engage the community, but I know they’re committed to doing that. There has to be some internal clarity about where we would like to go before we start negotiating with other groups,” he said.

Stoecker expressed regret that the committee will be purely internal and not address stakeholder concerns.

“Stanford can’t on its own decide what to do in a process that involves people upstream and downstream as well. It’s a very complex project that’s going to need to involve all these different stakeholders,” Stoeker said. “Just because they’re going to form a committee doesn’t mean that anything’s going to come of it.”

A number of issues beyond steelhead trout complicate the discussion, including sediment buildup and water use.

Over its 120-year life, Searsville has also filled to between 90 and 95 percent of its capacity with sediment, according to Freyberg. On average, the equivalent of 10 standard dump trucks per day accumulate in the reservoir, with most coming in severe weather or geological events. The variable deposition means that it could completely fill up with sediment next year if there was a large earthquake and heavy rainfall, or take up to 50 years at a slower rate.

When the reservoir fills, the entire ecosystem will change, creating wetlands above the dam with a Searsville waterfall as opposed to a Searsville dam. The sediment will also begin to move downstream and will affect the channel of San Francisquito Creek to the bay.

Searsville Dam also provides water to irrigate Stanford grounds. Tom Zigterman, associate director and civil infrastructure manager at Facilities Operations, who handles the hydraulic aspects of the dam, said that the water source is important to Stanford, providing hundreds of acre-feet of water per year.

“We take a sustainable water management approach at Stanford,” he said. “It’s in Stanford’s interests to preserve all its water supplies.”

“I want to be as open minded as possible about what makes the most sense. I think there’s a really great opportunity here for Stanford to make a really important land use and research contribution, because this is an issue whose going to repeat itself many thousands of times across the country in the coming decades,” Cohen said. “I’m hoping that whatever we do provides a real template for how to successfully approach the issue.”

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