Op-Ed: Understanding the issues behind Searsville Dam

Jan. 16, 2013, 10:41 p.m.

The future of Searsville Dam and Reservoir, located in Stanford’s Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, is a complex and challenging topic. Unfortunately, recent news coverage has included incorrect information, much of it attributed to statements by Beyond Searsville Dam (BSD), an organization committed to the dam’s removal.

This misinformation requires clarification in three key areas.

First, Stanford is not violating the federal Endangered Species Act or any other state or federal law in its operation of the Searsville Dam, which was built in 1892 and acquired by the university in 1919. In fact, for the past decade, Stanford has worked with agencies like the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on a 50-year Habitat Conservation Plan designed to enhance campus habitats for protected species. The San Francisquito Creek watershed continues to host a healthy steelhead population, supported by Stanford’s efforts to manage and enhance the water and fishery resources.

NMFS has indicated that it is investigating whether or not the current operation of Searsville Dam has led to “take” of steelhead. “Take” means an action that kills, harms or harasses a threatened or endangered species. The Jan. 8 Stanford Daily story quoted BSD as suggesting that the federal government does not open a case unless investigators are “pretty confident that they’re going to find something.” That is simply not true.

NMFS has informed Stanford that its policy is to begin an investigation whenever it receives a complaint. Stanford will provide NMFS the information it needs to assess such a complaint. The university is confident an investigation will confirm Stanford’s commitment to protecting all covered species and complying with all environmental laws.

Second, the university is not under investigation by any other agency for lacking regulatory permits to operate the dam, despite assertions made to The Daily to the contrary. Stanford has sought and received all appropriate federal and state permits for work there and in the San Francisquito Creek watershed.

Third, Searsville Dam is seismically safe and is regularly inspected by the Division of Safety of Dams. That agency reiterated the dam’s condition in a Dec. 28, 2012 letter to BSD and copied to Stanford. Specifically, the letter says that “the dam is considered safe for continued use, and no additional engineering or geologic analyses involving the dam, abutments or foundation are judged necessary at this time.”

A 12-person faculty and staff Steering Committee began actively studying the future of Searsville Dam and Reservoir in June 2011. Expert consultants specializing in several areas – including engineering and hydrology, ecosystems and biological/fisheries resources – are examining key technical issues. The ecosystem created by Searsville Dam now includes significant wetlands acreage upstream of the dam that host many species of birds and bats, among others. The historic trapping of sediment behind the dam has resulted in a downstream urban environment that has relied on that sediment being trapped. How, for instance, would removal or modifications to the dam affect the wetlands? How would changes in sediment flow in the creek affect downstream neighbors? These are just two examples of the complex considerations that must be taken into account.

That’s why Stanford has invited participation in the study by local community neighbors and relevant agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the California State Water Resources Control Board and the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority.

Possible alternatives to be evaluated by the Searsville Steering Committee are expected to include: “no action,” or letting the reservoir fill with sediment; dam modification; dam removal; sediment removal for reservoir capacity restoration; alternative water supply and storage strategies; fish passage around the dam; and possible combinations of these actions.

The future of Searsville Dam and Reservoir deserves careful study with a goal of reaching a recommended course of action that thoughtfully balances all the considerations. To rush to judgment with only one outcome in mind (removal of the dam) would be irresponsible.

When Jane and Leland Stanford deeded their farm to Stanford University, they made clear that administrators were to responsibly steward the land for the benefit of generations to come. Stanford will continue to act responsibly and deliberately when it comes to assessing the future of Searsville Dam.

Jean McCown
Stanford Director of Community Relations
Co-Chair of the Searsville Alternatives Study Steering Committee

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