Environmentalists finally see progress in removing Matilija Dam

Federal funds released through spending bills this year set to spur activity for projects around the county

By David Michael Courtland 03/26/2009

Removing the obsolete Matilija Dam near Ojai, which one environmentalist calls internationally important, is among several projects slated for federal funding from a recently passed omnibus spending bill.

“I’ve had people from Japan and all over the country come to look at it,” said Paul Jenkin of the Surfrider Foundation, explaining that similar dams are a worldwide problem. “The fact that this is the first large dam removal in the world is really significant.”

Congresswoman Lois Capps’ office said in a March 11 press release that $965,000 of the spending bill has been designated to restore the Ventura River, long the goal of environmentalists and subject of bureaucratic infighting.

“That’s money that would be used for design work for the Corps of Engineers,” explained Jenkin. “The project’s fairly complex, it includes many different components. Each one of those components is sort of a project in itself.”

Sue Hughes, the Ventura County Board of Supervisor’s legislative analyst, said the money is just the most recent chunk of funding the board asks for each year from Washington.

“Each year, I meet with department heads and the supervisors, and we draw up a list of projects we’d like to see funded,” Hughes explained, adding that Matilija Dam has been on the list regularly since 2000.

Since the dam is in Congressman Elton Gallegly’s district, and the Ventura River estuary in Lois Capps’, both have been supportive, as have senators Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, said Hughes.

“We often have all four of them submit requests,” to fund the project in spending bills, said Hughes, adding that the project’s total cost is $150 million.

“We’re doing it in pieces; we’re not done with the design phase,” said Hughes, noting that even if the project got entirely funded, it still wouldn’t be finished until 2012.

The purpose of removing the dam is to establish new runs for southern steelhead trout, an endangered species threatened by silt buildup from the dam, and restore a natural flow of sand to regional beaches.

The 198-foot dam is holding back 6 million cubic yards of sediment that would normally have made its way down the Ventura River to the beach, said Jenkin.

“Without dam removal, we’re going to see continued decline of the steelhead population,” said Jenkin, who said efforts to get the 60-year-old dam torn down began in the 1960s, but gained momentum in the 1990s when the Surfrider Foundation took up the cause.

Meanwhile, Jenkin is hoping some money from the federal economic stimulus package passed in January will be used to complete funding for a project to restore the beach at Surfer’s Point.

“That one’s shovel ready,” said Jenkin, explaining that the plan to move the popular bicycle path further back from shore is an alternative to building a sea wall.

“That will provide natural shoreline protection for the path and parking lot,” said Jenkin, “a natural buffer more able to respond to high tide.”

Other Ventura County projects the bill includes money for are:

$239,000 for the Ventura County Watershed Protection District to complete a feasibility study for the Santa Clara River Watershed Protection Plan.

$900,000 will be used to assist with the construction of a conventional sewer collection system in the unincorporated community of El Rio, near Oxnard.

$1.2 million for development of a pipeline system that would collect and carry brackish groundwater and recycled water, reducing the need to import water to the region from Northern California.

Maintenance dredging for the Port of Hueneme ($3.7 million), Channel Islands Harbor ($4.9 million) and Ventura Harbor ($2.8 million).   

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