A $130 million project to topple the massive Matilija Dam would be well underway if Ventura County, state agencies and local organizations could provide the local $52 million portion of the project’s whopping price tag.

Though the project still requires final congressional approval before removal of the monolith can begin, Sue Hughes, legislative analyst for Ventura County, said the biggest challenge will be securing funding. “If all the money was on the table right now, this thing could move full-speed ahead,” Hughes said. “If Bill Gates were into taking down dams, we would be set.” Though the county, environmental organizations and the state will bear the brunt of the local, or non-federal, share, the federal government is tasked with collecting the remaining $78 million.

While Gates has yet to call, the news is still good: The Ventura County Watershed Protection District recently succeeded in securing a $5 million grant garnered from Proposition 40 (the California Clean Water, Clean Air, Safe Neighborhood Parks, and Coastal Protection Act of 2002) funding — funding to be used on completing two elements of the dam deconstruction process. That process — which doesn’t include just taking down the dam and seeing where the chips fall — includes the construction of levees and bridges, as well as sediment transport.

Speaking of sediment, the location of sediment collected by the erosion of nearby mountains is where the trouble with the dam began. Constructed in 1947-48, Matilija Dam was brought online to store water that would later be diverted to the man-made Lake Casitas. The dam, which is 620-feet across and 200-feet tall at its highest point, has been collecting sediment that would otherwise be washed into the ocean and ultimately collect on the beaches, Hughes said.

Paul Jenkin, environmental director for the Ventura chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, is an ocean engineer who became involved with Surfrider in 1994 to address the erosion of the beach at Ventura’s Surfers’ Point. Somewhere along the line, Jenkin learned that the dam had been trapping sediment about 15 miles up the Ventura River over the course of about 50 years.

“I just kind of took that show on the road and spoke to anyone who would listen,” Jenkin said of his initial involvement in having the dam removed. For the past 12 years, Jenkin has campaigned to see that the wildlife habitat and health of the beaches and river are restored.

“Matilija has six million cubic yards of sediment trapped behind it,” he said. “The good news about Matilija is that the removal of the dam will renew significant habitat for various species.” According to Jenkin, the dam’s removal would ensure that 30 percent more sediment will travel downstream after flooding takes place. “This is a holistic approach to restoring the beaches.”

Jenkin, who said a dam the size of Matilija has never before been removed, visited Japan to take a look at the process of removing the smaller Arase Dam. While there, Jenkin embarked on a multi-city tour, during which he spoke about the local dam-removal project and beach restoration. Jenkin is also the coordinator for the Surfrider-based Matilija Coalition, a diverse coalition made up primarily of environmental groups.

Local support has been relatively strong from the get-go, according to Jenkin and Hughes. The Ventura County Watershed District, The United States Army Corps of Engineers — which performed a feasibility study in the project and will ultimately oversee contracting of the project — are among stakeholders that have played a part in planning since day one. The feasibility study began in 2001 and the project has been in the pre-engineering and design phase, also overseen by the Army corps, since 2005.

The California Coastal Conservancy has acted as Ventura County’s major partner — and provided half of the funding for the feasibility study — while the cities of Ventura and Ojai,as well as Casitas Municipal Water District, Ojai Basin Groundwater Management Agency, United States Bureau of Reclamation, Surfrider Foundation, Matilija Coalition and the United States Geological Survey, have all played a part in the project’s planning.

The pre-engineering and design phase, or the period in which engineers determine exactly how to topple the dam, will cost about $8 million — composed of $2 million in non-federal funding and about $6 million in federal funds to be distributed via the federal water and energy appropriations bill.

“In a perfect world, planning would be done by 2007 and we could start the project in 2008,” Hughes said.

Then again, we could just wait for Bill Gates.