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Searsville Dam: Time for Stanford to Walk the Walk

Category: Newsletter Articles | Posted by: Jonathan | 7/6/12 | Comments: 17

Summary: The San Francisquito Creek watershed in California’s Bay Area runs through Stanford University’s campus on its way to San Francisco Bay. Historically it was home to healthy runs of steelhead (in addition to salmon). However, this ecosystem was drastically changed when the Spring Valley Water Company erected the Searsville Dam in 1892 to create an impoundment for potable water storage.

By Loren Elliot

The San Francisquito Creek watershed in California’s Bay Area runs through Stanford University’s campus on its way to San Francisco Bay. Historically it was home to healthy runs of steelhead (in addition to salmon). However, this ecosystem was drastically changed when the Spring Valley Water Company erected the Searsville Dam in 1892 to create an impoundment for potable water storage. The reservoir has never served that purpose and Stanford University acquired the dam around 1919 for non-potable uses.

The dam, just like so many others up and down the coast, blocked access to critical spawning and rearing habitat for steelhead, as well as Coho and Chinook salmon. This took a significant toll on the populations, but still there was enough habitat remaining downstream of the dam to support some percentage of the historical runs. However, Stanford has failed to pay any attention to the fish downstream of the dam, and their operations commonly let the creek run dry while returning spawners and juveniles are in the creek. As a result, low, and often absent, flows below the impassable dam have all but decimated the once healthy populations of steelhead here which are now listed in critical condition under the Endangered Species Act. The Coho and Chinook salmon have not been seen in decades.

In some instances, such as with the lower Snake River dams in the Columbia River drainage, dams take their inevitable toll on anadromous fish, but are difficult to lobby against because of their possession of the proper permits in addition to their utility as major hydroelectric energy sources. The impoundment behind the Searsville Dam, however, has very limited and easily replaceable utility. Its water is used for the sole purpose of campus irrigation, including the university’s expansive golf course and athletic fields. Additionally, silt buildup has reduced its water storage capacity by more than ninety percent. On top of this, the last time it had a detailed foundation inspection by state safety officials was in the 1960s. To put it into perspective, this is a dam that lacks any of the permits and agreements required by the California Department of Fish and Game and National Marine Fisheries Service regarding adequate instream flows and the protection of habitat for the endangered species it negatively impacts. This is an unacceptable situation when endangered wild steelhead return each winter in an effort to spawn only to find critical habitat degraded or inaccessible.

Stanford preaches a message of sustainability and environmental awareness. Last year in the university’s sustainability report, president John Hennessey wrote, “Sustainability must become a core value in everything we do. As a community we are committed to developing our core campus in a sustainable fashion that preserves what we cherish, that demonstrates leadership in the university’s commitment to be a good environmental steward.” As long as the Searsville Dam stands and the creek below it runs dry while endangered steelhead suffocate in its pools in failed attempt to spawn, this quote stands as a message of hypocrisy, not sustainability.

The future could bring hope if Stanford will finally stop turning a blind eye to the soon-to-be extinct endangered steelhead in its backyard. The university received an $18.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to implement a research center “with the goal of re-inventing America’s aging and inadequate water infrastructure.” The university has formed an internal, faculty-led Searsville Committee investigating the possibility of modifying or removing the dam. The process is underway to determine the school’s future course of action regarding Searsville. I recently spoke with Pamela Matson, the Dean of Stanford’s School of Earth Science and Searsville Committee member, about how that process is developing. She said, “We are all really excited about doing an analysis that evaluates all the options, including leaving the dam and just letting it fill in, all the way through to taking the dam out.” Though this perspective has some hope, I found it discouraging that the possibility of leaving this ecologically irresponsible structure intact could be an acceptable possibility for Matson. The preservation of the dam could mean the loss of the creek’s endangered steelhead and other listed species. It is hoped that Matson will develop a strong interest in the removal of the dam as one would expect from the Dean of the School of Earth Science.

If the Searsville Dam comes down, the potential for restoration work extends far past San Francisquito Creek and it’s endangered steelhead. A growing trend of dam removal is underway from the West Coast to the East. The dams of the Elwha River on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula are in the process of being taken down to bring back not only the decimated steelhead and salmon runs, but an entire ecosystem. The Condit Dam on the White Salmon River, also in Washington, has gone the same route with excavators currently tearing it down. The emerging science is clear that long-term environmental benefits will outweigh the short-term environmental disruptions caused by dam removal. There is still much to be learned through the removals. Each example provides prime learning opportunities for how the process can be made most effective in the future.

Searsville Dam removal offers a valuable opportunity for Stanford to transform from absentee land stewards to environmental leaders while upgrading their antiquated water system to a more reliable and sustainable one. The learning and leadership potential is great for future dam removals around the country. While the university deliberates on the long overdue review of this destructive structure, it is imperative that the public put more pressure on. This is the time to weigh in and tell Stanford that it is time for the Searsville Dam to come down and the San Francisquito Watershed to be restored, for the sake of this drainage and many others that could benefit from the lessons learned.

Join the Wild Steelhead Coalition in supporting the Beyond Searsville Dam coalition’s campaign to encourage Stanford’s decision makers to set an example for the rest of the country and establish themselves as model environmental stewards. If the dam does not come down after this review, it certainly won’t any time soon, and a unique watershed-scale restoration opportunity will be lost.

Beyond Searsville Dam Director Matt Stoecker summed it up in saying, “Stanford is at a pivotal crossroads. They can either choose to be responsible environmental and community leaders or they can go down in history as a hypocritical behemoth that failed to practice at home the sustainability message they are preaching to the rest of the world.”

Take action and tell Stanford University to remove Searsville Dam.

Learn more about the Searsville Dam.

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17 Responses

  1. Loren and Wild Steelhead Coalition,

    Thank you so much for covering this important dam removal opportunity and for your call to action!

    From all of us at Beyond Searsville Dam

  2. Lori Pottinger says:

    Stanford: live up to your principals and take down Searsville Dam!

  3. Jessie Raeder says:

    Dear Stanford,
    Be bold. Be forward thinking, cutting edge. Be known for creating a better future. Defending dams is old thinking. Backward. Obsolete. Stodgy.
    Choose a side,

    Jessie Raeder

  4. Jesse Dysart says:

    Stanford should be ashamed of this dam. If an earthquake causes it to collapse & takes many lives with it, Stanford should be sued into bankruptcy…just like Penn St. This dam only stands because Stanford does not want to tear down their obsolete creation. Shame on Stanford…SHAME!

  5. Karyn Bryant says:

    It’s time to let this creek flow as it was originally intended once again.

  6. Matthew Rode says:

    Dear Stanford,

    This dam is not in keeping with the green earth practices you profess to follow. How about using some of those billions of dollars for a worthwhile cause.

    Please do not call me for any fund drives until you have corrected this grevious mistake. The class of ’71 will be watching.

  7. ellen strempek says:

    Remove the dam! Save our steelhead before it’s too late!

  8. ellen strempek says:

    Save our steelhead! Remove the dam!

  9. Bonnie Daley says:

    Please remove the dam so that we can increase the numbers of steelhead that will be able to spawn. They are a national treasure that we must work to preserve and restore. As a middle school scienc teachers, I raise trout in the classroom and expose my students to these conservation concerns. I would like my students to have the opportunity to enjoy the steelhead and trout when they grow older. Thanks,
    Bonnie Daley

  10. Pam Anderson says:

    Please remove the Searsville Dam and restore to
    a healthy watershed for the fish.

  11. Jonathan says:

    Thanks for all the responses, folks! If you haven’t already, make sure to use the above link and send a message directly to Stanford and let them know you them to remove the dam: http://wildsteelheadcoalition.org/2012/07/tell-stanford-university-to-remove-searsville-dam/

  12. Jonathan B says:

    Dear decision-makers-at-Stanford,

    The oldest of my three kids (9) just got her first fly rod and I teach my kids about conservation, in addition to what they (may) learn in school. I’m not really a trout and steelhead fisher – I’m into warmwater species – so you could say I have no dog in this race, but removing Searsville Dam would be a wonderful working lesson of conservation in action for children (and adults, too) throughout the bay area.

    I hope you will give strong consideration to having the dam removed as soon as possible.

  13. Bill says:

    Mr Hennessey, TEAR DOWN THIS DAM

  14. C. Cruickshank says:

    Stanford’s Jaspar Ridge Biological Reserve for bats, bullfrogs, and mesquito’s (Seaasville Lake) needs to go.
    Restore the creek and all it’s treasures.

  15. Rose says:

    Did not see a petition to sign if I say one I definitely would please keep me informed of the Searsville Dam



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