Since its construction in 1947, the Matilija Dam has blocked the passage of spawning salmon up the Ventura River, interfering with the Ojai Valley ecosystem.

Since his election in 2001, President Bush has blocked the passage of the Water Resources Development Act, denying funding for key restoration projects — including the removal of the Matilija Dam — and interfering with Washington legislators.

Bush’s “Dam it” approach was working.

But the presidential paradigm fell flat Nov. 8 when legislators in Washington proved that even giant walls of concrete or ideology can be toppled with enough solidarity.

Overriding a Bush veto for the first time since he took office, Congress passed a bill opening funding floodgates for the Matilija Dam Ecosystem Restoration Project.

Congresswoman Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara) generated the local portion of the Water Resources Development Act, H.R. 1495, which authorizes $145 million for the Matilija project. She is now trying to get the House of Representatives and U.S. Senate to appropriate the project, a necessary step that will allocate the first installment of the $145 million limit for the Ventura County project.

“I am pleased that the Senate has joined the House in overriding the president’s irresponsible veto of this strong bipartisan bill,” Capps said in a release.

Making good on his promise, Bush vetoed the bill early this month after it was overwhelmingly passed by Congress.

The president argued that the $23 billion bill was too expensive.

Needing a two-thirds majority to override the veto, the Senate voted 79-14 on Nov. 8 and the House voted 361-54 on Nov. 6, to pass the bill, according to the Associated Press.

The passage marks the first time in a decade that Congress has voted to override a presidential veto, AP reported.

The passage of the bill is a monumental move not only for Washington, but also for Ventura County, Capps said.

“This project is vital for our local community. There is a broad coalition that supports this project and a clear consensus that we must remove the Matilija Dam in order to protect the watershed and restore habitat for endangered species, including Steelhead (trout), and enable the natural flow of sand to the coast.”

Local environmental activists heralded the unprecedented action by the now Democrat-controlled Senate and House, calling the bill a significant step toward saving the Ventura River ecosystem, choked by the 620-foot-wide dam for nearly six decades.

“It’s been a long time that we’ve been waiting for this kind of authorization on this huge project,” said Paul Jenkin, who helped form the Matilija Coalition in 2000 under the umbrella of the Surfriders Ventura County Chapter, where he serves as the environmental director.

In the past lawmakers typically renewed WRDA annually, but they have been unable to do so since 2000, according to Capps’ office.

The bill allocates funding for hundreds of Army Corps of Engineers water resources projects — including those for the hurricane-hit Gulf Coast — most of which have been on the backburner for the past seven years due to a lack of federal funding.

“This legislation will enhance the safety and security of millions of Americans by moving these critical infrastructure projects forward,” said Capps.

Jenkin said the passage of WRDA gives impetus to the Matilija Dam removal project.

“This confirms that this is now a national project. It’s definitely a huge milestone,” he told the Reporter the day the bill was enacted into law.

“We will ultimately be removing one of the largest dams that’s ever been removed in the world, and doing it right here in Ventura County.”

The outdated dam has long been a source of woe for environmental activists who say it has thwarted the migration of Steelhead Trout up the Ventura River and caused massive beach erosion by blocking sediment from floating down to the ocean. About 6 million cubic yards of sediment are now piled behind the dam, said Sue Hughes, legislative analyst for Ventura County.

Shortly after the dam was constructed as an attempt to control floodwater and reroute water to the eastern agricultural area of the Ojai Valley — neither of which was effective — sediment began to accumulate behind the massive concrete wall.

The water basin behind the dam has been gradually filling up so that it now holds less than 400 acre feet, as compared to 8,000 acre feet initially.

“The massive build-up of sediment behind Matilija Dam is causing numerous environmental problems, including beach erosion and threats to steelhead trout,” Capps said. “This legislation, and the funding I have previously secured for this project, will help ensure that the complete removal of the dam is carried out in a safe and environmentally sound manner.”

In July, Capps helped pass the Fiscal Year 2008 Energy and Water Appropriations bill, approving $750,000 in funding for the local dam removal project.

Before the dam can be removed, the sediment must be transported downstream or moved elsewhere.

The finer sediment — about 2 million cubic yards worth — will be pumped out of the area behind the dam and used to line the river banks; during heavy storms, the sediment will gradually wash down the river and become beach sand, said 1st District Supervisor Steve Bennett, who has been involved in the restoration project for several years.

Construction crews will cut a channel through the remaining 4 million cubic yards of gravel-like sediment to temporarily stabilize the area after the dam is removed, Bennett added. The larger sediment will also eventually be swept away by storms over the years.

“It will gradually slough off,” Bennett said. “It’s just a much better way to move the sediment than to run gravel trucks through the Ojai Valley and haul the stuff away.”

The county already secured $5 million in state bond funding, allowing crews to begin removing the non-native Arundo donax, or giant reed, from the river banks, said Sue Hughes, legislative analyst for Ventura County. The money will also go toward building two wells at Foster Park in Ventura to ensure that the city has an adequate water supply after the dam is removed, because of the probable increase in sediment in Ventura River water.

The restoration project is in the pre-engineering and design stage, Hughes said.

About $8 million is needed to complete this stage, which will be followed by the sediment and dam removal.

The local portion of that money, $2 million, has already been secured and the remaining portion should come through the California Coastal Conservancy, Hughes said.

The project officially began in 2000, with a county Watershed Protection District Feasibility Study, followed by several environmental reviews, she said.

Atypically, no advocacy or environmental group opposed the extensive project, allowing it to move forward in 2005, Hughes said.

“There hasn’t really been much controversy about this project,” Bennett said. “We spent a lot of time pulling all of the various stakeholders in, including water groups, environmental groups and Ojai Valley residents. We have very broad support for this project because of the collaborative planning process we went through.”

The Matilija Dam Ecosystem Restoration Project won the Army Corps of Engineers national award for Best Planned Project in 2005.

Funding is now the only significant hurdle standing in the way of the project’s completion, said Jenkin.

For the estimated $145 million project, the federal government will contribute up to $90 million, with the state and local government providing the rest.

Capps is working to get a portion of the federal funds appropriated. Late November is the earliest any funding bill could reach the House, said Emily Kryder, media relations official for Capps.

Bennett sees the restoration benefiting the Ojai Valley residents as well as visitors.

“This project will be good for the residents because they will get to enjoy a more natural river,” he said. “It will also be good for the tourism industry. I think we will see more people in the tourism industry touting the Ventura River. You know, come to the beach one day and hike back into the beautiful canyons the next.”

Tourism aside, the passage of WRDA is a “significant hurdle cleared,” Bennett said.

On Nov. 8 the tide turned in Washington, but the ripple effects are still being felt in Ventura County.

No one senses this more than Jenkin, who, after seven years of working toward the Matilija restoration, is finally seeing some light through the cracks in the dam.

“We’re very excited. We will continue to focus on the area and the river to achieve our goals.

Then, speaking with a vagueness that lent itself as a reference either to Matilija project or the Bush presidency, Jenkin said, “There’s a lot more work to be done, but this is the first huge step.

“We’re trying to undue some of the damage that has been done.”