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.”