Court orders Stanford to take steps toward removal of Lagunita Diversion Dam

Feb. 6, 2015, 11:40 a.m.

A district judge issued a court order requiring Stanford to provide periodic assessments of its removal of Lagunita Diversion Dam on Jan. 16. This new development is only one bump in Stanford’s long history of dams, as two environmental groups have filed multiple lawsuits against the university in recent years.

According to local environmental activist Matt Stoecker, Lagunita Dam and the much larger Searsville Dam, both impede the upstream migration of endangered steelhead trout, and are therefore in violation of the Endangered Species Act. Stoecker first took issue with the dam and its fish ladder in 1998.

“We’re talking about 15 years of us defining that dam as a problem for steelhead, requesting that Stanford do something about it, requesting its removal, having the agencies — [National Marine Fisheries Service and CA Fish and Wildlife] — work with Stanford to agree on removal,” said Stoecker. “Now it’s 2015, and Stanford hasn’t even completed a design planning process, let alone looked for permits to carry out the removal.”

Lagunita Diversion Dam, which used to divert water into the now-dry Lake Lagunita, became the subject of a lawsuit filed by two non-profits, Our Children’s Earth (OCE) and Environmental Rights Foundation (ERF), last year.

Chris Sproul, the lawyer for OCE and ERF, believes that the new addition of the court order, which requires written reports every 75 days, will force Stanford to be held accountable and proceed in a timely manner.

“From our view it’s a game changer. Stanford has continued to make noises since 2005, but yet has done nothing,” said Sproul. “[The court order] creates deadlines that don’t allow Stanford to continue this strategy of saying to the world, ‘Oh, we’re going to do something about this’, and then do nothing.”

However, university spokeswoman Lisa Lapin said that Stanford has been proceeding with activity to remove the dam for some time.

“Stanford is actively doing the engineering and hydrology work in preparation for removing the Lagunita Dam. The court has actually stayed litigation activity on this subject, allowing Stanford time to continue working on the project,” said Lapin. “The court has simply asked the university to provide progress reports on a project the university initiated and already has underway.”

Sproul, however, said that Stanford’s response regarding Lagunita Dam will set a precedent for its proceedings with the Searsville Dam lawsuit.

“We’re hoping this shows that Stanford will respond if enough public pressure is brought on the university that they won’t continue to just delay on Searsville Dam as well,” Sproul said.

Searsville Dam, built in 1892, is located in Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve. The dam diverts water used to irrigate the golf course and other campus amenities. OCE and ERF filed a similar lawsuit to that of Lagunita Dam regarding Searsville’s blockage of steelhead trout.

Portola Valley Town Council recently sent a letter to President John Hennessy presenting its position on Searsville Dam.

The council wrote that they “support an unimpeded migration corridor along Corte Madera Creek and other creeks to enable effective wildlife migration to and from Portola Valley in order to ensure that wildlife can maintain genetic diversity and adapt to a changing climate.”

Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor David Freyberg MS ‘77 Ph.D. ‘81 believes removal is not so simple. Freyberg sits on the Jasper Ridge Advisory Committee and Searsville Alternative Study that are researching tradeoffs and alternatives to Searsville removal. Freyberg said that the group is studying various ways for the trout to get around the dam and additional consequences of dam removal.

According to Freyberg, the reservoir is filled with 120 years’ worth of accumulated sediment and captures 90 percent of new sediment deposits annually.

“Any modification to the dam and the reservoir has to address the consequences of sediment movement downstream,” Freyberg said.

Additionally, the presence of Searsville Dam has modified the ecosystem of Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve in the last century into a wetland habitat supported by the sediment deposit.

“The dam and reservoir are sitting on a biological preserve, which is an important resource as a teaching facility. The disruption of any future alternative has to be assessed against the impact on the goals of the preserve,” Freyberg said.

Stoecker, however, believes that dam removal at Lagunita and Searsville can be posed as a teaching moment in itself.

“At the end of the day, this is an amazing opportunity for Stanford to remove a dam and study the impact at Jasper Ridge and become leaders in the science of dam removal and river restoration on a large scale,” Stoecker said.

Contact Alexandra Nguyen-Phuc at amn17 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Alexandra Nguyen-Phuc ‘18 is a news deputy desk editor and former staff writer. A freshman from Los Angeles, California, she wants to learn more about urban studies, economics and food system sustainability in her time at Stanford. Contact her at nguyenphuc ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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