A river used to run through it
Local event highlights the Matilija Dam, Ventura River Parkway Project and the future of the Ventura River
By Chris O'Neal 05/22/2014
The Ventura River is no stranger to cleanup and restoration efforts. Weekend trash removal projects and guided tours have made locals more aware of the river that runs adjacent to the city. The river, however, is not what it used to be. When settlers first arrived in Ventura, the river was a spot where children learned to swim and fishermen made a living. Now, a conjoined effort to restore the river to its former glory and to raise awareness is calling attention not only to local water issues, but to dwindling fish populations, polluted rivers and aging dams across the country.
Lee Sherman, development manager with the Ventura Hillsides Conservancy, takes his kids to a watering hole along the Ventura River every once in a while, where they swim and hike. Sherman also leads area students on field trips to the river, where they learn about the history of the native people who have used the area for centuries. On Saturday, Sherman will be at the Ventura River to give guided tours about the Ventura River Parkway Project, a massive undertaking to reshape the river into a more accessible community resource.
“We want residents to know that it’s there, to be aware of it and then, hopefully, get engaged,” says Sherman. “People need to start to feel ownership and visit it.”
The Ventura River Parkway Project will create “pocket parks,” areas along the Ventura-to-Ojai bike trail that will allow for cyclists to park and lock up their bikes and then head down to the river for sightseeing, picnics or other activities. Currently, much of the bike path runs adjacent to the river but there are no stops along the riverbank.
The Saturday picnic event will also coincide with World Fish Migration Day, an internationally recognized movement to bring awareness about the changing face of fish habitats. In Ventura County, the steelhead trout, an endangered species, is not only the subject of the Ventura River restoration but also in the middle of a long-standing debate regarding the Matilija dam.
Paul Jenkin of the Surfrider Foundation says that after the removal of the Matilija dam, the Ventura River would quickly turn around.
“Restoring sediment transport down the river is key to restoring natural processes,” said Jenkin. “In general, it’s a key aspect of ecosystem function. Restoring a free-flowing river can have wide-ranging effects that you can’t really even predict.”
The Matilija Dam, constructed in 1948, was originally intended to provide water for local agricultural projects and farmlands; but after several decades, the dam filled with sediment and became obsolete. In 2007, Congress gave Ventura County permission to remove the dam with a budget of $144.5 million, but when the proposed time period for removal approached — between 2010 and 2012 — Congress failed to provide the funds.
Debates over what to do with the sediment have stymied the removal as well. In the Congress-approved original plan, the sediment was to be moved downriver. In another plan, the sediment was to be moved upriver and encased under concrete. A new plan to deal with the sediment is in the works, says Jenkin.
The Matilija Dam is also one of the subjects of the Patagonia-produced documentary DamNation, a film that follows the attempts by activists to have removed old and obsolete dams across the country that have no use or are negatively affecting the rivers.
The issue of river health has brought international attention to Ventura. Jenkin says that while preparing for the third annual Picnic at the River event, he was contacted by members of the European Union on how to expand the program to Europe.
“It really puts a local spotlight on the critical need for restoring fish migration passage around the world,” said Jenkin. “There are hundreds of events around the world and other dam removals in California and elsewhere that are in the spotlight; this is one of those major efforts that is largely focused on fish passage.”
The effect dams have on fish populations such as the steelhead and other Pacific-coast fish is a major factor in the decision to remove the dam, says Jenkin. A fish ladder was once operable on the dam, but after taking damage from falling rocks it is no longer in use.
“Extinction is forever and if we lose those salmon that’s a huge loss in our lifetime that we’re trying to avoid,” said Jenkin.
This year’s picnic will also be hosted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which reached out to the Ventura Hillside Conservancy to help highlight the worldwide connection. For Sherman, the picnic is an opportunity to generate excitement over the natural resources in our backyard.
“Hopefully people will start volunteering to help in our restoration efforts,” said Sherman. “Enjoy it, go there and visit.”
The third annual Picnic at the River in conjunction with World Fish Migration Day will take place on Saturday, May 24, 11 a.m.-2 p.m., at the Ventura River Parkway in Ventura. For more information, visit www.worldfishmigrationday.com. The film DamNation will be screened Thursday, June 5, 7:30 p.m. at Patagonia, 235 Santa Clara St., Ventura. For more information, visit www.damnationfilm.com.