Searsville committee draws local criticism

May 19, 2011, 3:04 a.m.

Stanford recently named five faculty members to a committee designed to determine the future of Searsville Dam. The new committee, however, has sparked some concern among due to its lack of representation from the outside community or local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

The Searsville Dam project has been a topic of controversy between the University and environmental activists in recent years. Environmental activists have protested the dam’s current interference with the natural habitat of the steelhead trout, currently an endangered species.

“I am concerned that at least for now the committee doesn’t have any outside participation,” said Steve Rothert, California regional director for American Rivers, an NGO that has long been concerned about the fate of the dam. “I recognize this is a very complex and controversial issue. I recognize this is also Stanford’s dam. One might argue Stanford should make the decision, but the dam also affects the community and public resources that everyone has an interest in.”

Rothert believes the University should seek advice from those who are not directly involved in the committee or linked to Stanford to achieve a durable solution.

According to Philippe Cohen, administrative director at Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, Stanford intends to seek advice from public agencies and plans to discuss different ways to engage the outside community in early committee discussions. He revealed, however, that before community discussion can begin, the committee must outline its objectives for the dam.

“I think that Stanford needs to identify what it considers its highest priorities with regard to the future of Searsville before engaging the general public,” Cohen wrote in an email to The Daily. “Without that internal clarity, there is too much potential for miscommunication and confusion.”

Cohen explained that communication with outside agencies is not only important, but also necessary for the Searsville Dam project. He stated that regardless of the committee’s final plan, Stanford must obtain permits from various agencies, including the National Marine Fisheries Service, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the California Department of Fish and Game and the State Water Quality Board.

“All of these agencies have public comment and outreach components which further guarantees that there will be plenty of opportunity for public input,” Cohen said.

Cohen revealed that the University plans to participate with the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority to ensure that the committee remains in contact with communities that are most vulnerable to changes in the watershed. These floodplain communities include East Palo Alto, Palo Alto and Menlo Park.

“The steering committee as composed brings such important and diverse expertise bear on this complex issue that, I think, for the first time there will be opportunities to explain in ways that watershed residents can understand the various and complex processes that are at play when thinking about the future of Searsville Dam and reservoir,” Cohen said. “At some point … some town-hall type presentations will be essential — that includes an enhanced effort at explaining what the risks are in the various options.”

Cohen also expressed concern about the risks the committee’s decisions will have on the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, where the dam is located.

Despite Cohen’s assurance that the committee will eventually involve community members, Rothert said that as of publication, Stanford has not contacted American Rivers.

Rothert described the absence of outside community members within the committee to be “genuinely perplexing.” Despite this concern, Rothert remains hopeful and views the formation of the committee as a sign that the University is finally confronting a long-ignored problem.

“We’ve been trying to engage Stanford in a meaningful evaluation of the dam and its impacts and how to eliminate its impacts for about 10 years,” Rothert said. “It’s our view that the University has never taken seriously the impact of the dam on the steelhead trout and their critical habitat. I’m hoping formation of this committee signals a new approach to the problem.”

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