Thursday, November 8, 2007

Veto Override Boosts Dam Destruction Plan

Matilija Dam during a rare spill in January 2005. With an override of a President Bush veto, Congress freed up $90 million to destroy the dam to allow steelhead to swim upstream and sand to replenish local beaches.

By Daryl Kelley
Demolition of Matilija Dam and restoration of the Ventura River ecosystem received a huge boost this week when Congress overrode President Bush’s veto of a massive water projects bill.
The bill provides about $23 billion for projects across the nation, including $1.3 billion in California and nearly $90 million for razing Matilija Dam, a move Ventura County officials have sought for nearly a decade and which environmentalists have wanted for decades.
Tearing down the dam would promote the spawning of endangered southern steelhead trout and replenish Ventura beaches with sand that now gets trapped in the dam’s reservoir.
“It’s something I’ve been dreaming of since 1994; this is a tremendous victory for Ventura County,” said Paul Jenkin, coordinator of the Matilija Coalition, an organization of seven core environmental groups and dozens of other supporters who have lobbied for razing the dam.
“For the Ventura River to begin recovery, it requires removal of the dam,” he said. “It’s one of the most significant acts that’s going to take place for the steelhead trout. A healthy steelhead population here could spread to other (nearby) rivers and streams. And it will restore the sediment supplies for the beach: There will be 30 percent more sediment for the beaches over the next 50 years once the dam is removed.”County Supervisor Steve Bennett, a principal proponent for dam removal in recent years, said the congressional override, the first of Bush’s administration, is a landmark in providing most of the $145 million required to complete the dam and sediment removal to restore the river to its natural state.
“I can’t overstate how satisfying this is,” Bennett said. “It culminates a decade of effort by the county. But it’s wrong to think of this as dam removal. This is a project to restore the Ventura River ecosystem, which means trying to return the river to its natural state.”
The federal bill passed by far more than the two-thirds super-majority needed to override Bush’s veto authorizes Congress to spend $89.7 million on the Matilija Dam project. The actual expenditures must still be approved each year as part of the budget process, but Bennett said he’s sure that will occur.
The earliest actual demolition could happen during 2010 to 2012, according to a feasibility study completed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers three years ago.
In addition to the federal government’s contribution, about $55 million would be required from state and local sources. Almost all of that would come from bonds issued by the state, which has endorsed the project and has assigned the Coastal Conservancy as the point agency for it.
So far, the state has spent several million dollars to design the dam removal project.
Matilija Dam, built in 1948 for flood control and water storage, has been obsolete for decades, because it quickly filled with sediment from Matilija Canyon runoff. Now, only 5 percent of its storage contains water. Millions of cubic feet of sediment fill the rest of the reservoir.
Because of fears that it might collapse, an engineering firm condemned it in 1964 and recommended its removal. Instead, the county has cut two deep notches into its face to lower storage capacity, so pressure from water and sediment could be relieved.
Indeed, the Corps of Engineers found in 1941 that the dam would be a mistake that would never pay for itself. But local voters approved the project, with an estimated cost of less than $1 million. It eventually cost $4 million to complete.
Casitas Municipal Water District, which has overseen the dam’s operation for 50 years, has recently favored its removal.
“Everything went wrong with this dam,” said Casitas board President Russ Baggerly, “and it has led to the first congressional override of a Bush veto and eventually will lead to the bringing down of the first tall dam in American history.”
Baggerly said he remembers the mid-1990s bumper sticker produced by Paul Jenkin on behalf of the Surfrider Foundation, advocating the removal of the dam.
“From the moment of that original bumper sticker to now, none of us have lost faith that the dam would come down,” Baggerly said.
Jenkin said the roots of the dam-removal effort go back to the 1970s, when then San Francisco ‘49ers football player, Ed Henke, who’d grown up along the Ventura River, began to lobby for the dam’s demolition.
“This started from a grass-roots effort from concerned citizens,” Jenkin said.
Then, in the 1990s, the Jenkin’s Surfrider Foundation pushed until the county Board of Supervisors took up the cause, with Supervisors John Flynn and Kathy Long pushing the issue. The supervisors’ board officially resolved to remove the dam in 1998.
All along, Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) provided support. Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara) did the same later on.
When Bennett and county staffers lobbied in Washington in 2004 to get the Matilija project into the federal water bill, he said Gallegly was very supportive.
“Gallegly’s office helped us tremendously,” Bennett said.
Now, Bennett said, the Ojai Valley will be enriched because of the effort.
“The Ojai Valley will have one of the few naturally flowing rivers in California running right through it,” he said. “It will help the steelhead and the sediment flows, but it will also help the local tourist industry.”
An overlooked aspect of the project, Bennett said, is that the road used to truck away sediment from behind the dam will become a public trail into the wild Matilija Canyon.
“It will become a hiking trail all the way up the river,” he said. “This is so much more than just taking down a dam.”
A hundred years ago, Jenkin noted, tourists came to the Ojai Valley just to visit Hanging Rock, which is now buried 150 feet deep in sediment behind the dam.
“There were tourist postcards for Hanging Rock,” a large outcropping of stone that overshadowed a large pool frequented by swimmers and steelhead trout, he said.
“Now,” Jenkin said, “all that can return.”


Anonymous said...

We need to tear down this dam dam now. I am so sick of waiting. Bring out the wrecking balls and the dynamite

Anonymous said...

All I know is that when my parents moved out here in the 1930's they told us about seeing houses floating down the river during the winter. There are many more houses in the river bottom now than there were in the 30's

Anonymous said...

What kind of moron builds a house in a river bottom?

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't worry about flooding when they tear the dam down. It would have to rain to cause that. And because of global warming there is no rain in the future

The Demo Man said...

Why does it cost hundreds of millions of dollars to remove this thing? I could do it for three million: Two million to buy the property below the dam through eminent domain, 200k for dynamite, 500k to haul the concrete debris and dump in the ocean to make a fish sanctuary and 300 k for miscellaneous provisions. Let the sand naturally wash to the ocean.

Now that is what I call fiscal responsibility.

Enough with the redtape and "scientific" advisors on the logistics. Consulting firms are jokes.

Anonymous said...

As a resident that lives by the river im tired of prohibiting the natural flow of the river i have not seen water flow down the river in at least 2 years. And when it has the sides of the river would wash away putting my house in danger let the river flow and the silt will buid and re fertalze the ground of the aluvial fan that is the ojai valley.

Anonymous said...

How DID the OVN manage to get Daryl Kelley on their team? Pure luck. Like the facts he digs up or not, he is one heck of an investigative reporter, and one who writes in such a manner that makes the subject matter very easy to understand, even for those who are not familiar with what he is reporting on. Hang on to him!