Ventura’s settlers and native populations thrived on fish from the Ventura River. The steelhead trout traversed the winding path through to the estuary, from the mountains to the ocean, on their way to and from spawning, and fishermen took advantage of the bounty.
This, of course, was prior to 1947 when the Matilija Dam was constructed. Since then, the dam has consequently caused some serious environmental problems: The steelhead population has dwindled to such a degree that finding a single trout that has traversed the fish ladder in the last decade is cause for celebration and the beach at Surfers Point and farther down the coast have seen a constant battle against erosion, in part due to a lack of sediment flowing from the river. Plus, the dam has become obsolete as a reservoir and flood prevention measure.
It all can change, very soon, however. A plan has been selected for the dam’s removal — with all parties involved optimistic that perhaps it could be done as early as 2020.
A SPARK OF INSPIRATION
In a video posted to YouTube by National Geographic, the White Salmon River in the state of Washington moves slowly during the month of October 2011. The gentle flow is soon interrupted, as a blast can be heard. The water begins to flow more quickly, draining through a gate blasted open at the base of the Condit Dam.
What’s left looks rather, well, dry. The river’s edge collapses as muddy water flows downstream. What was left in its wake, however, is an environment more akin to its original state — and one that environmentalists see as the future for rivers across the country.
The 100-year-old Condit Dam had been the source of much controversy regarding the inability of fish upriver to pass through on their way to spawn, among many other environmental issues. The reservoir, having filled to capacity with sediment, was decommissioned in the late 1990s. Its removal was the largest dam removal of its kind in the States for a time, and when interested parties began to search for options for removing the similarly plagued Matilija Dam, they looked to the Condit.
“They drilled a hole in the base almost all the way through and waited for a storm event, and
then they dynamited that hole and blew the plug out,” said Paul Jenkin, Surfrider Foundation’s environmental coordinator, and coordinator of the Matilija Coalition. “The whole reservoir drained and flushed most of the silt out downstream, and then they removed the dam.”
In March, the Matilija Dam Design Oversight
Group hosted a meeting during which several
plans were presented. In the end, the Condit Dam removal spurred the decision: to create
plugs at the bottom portion of the Matilija Dam and wait for a large rain event and then blow the plugs to smithereens, releasing water through “uncontrolled orifices” along with the 8 million cubic yards of silt, cobble and gravel trapped in the reservoir, as it was considered not only the most inexpensive plan, but also the plan that would have the least negative environmental impact.
The changes downstream will occur over time: new riverbeds will be formed, new habitats for fish and wildlife, and replenished beaches at Surfers Point and down coast. The river will return to its pre-1947 state, eventually.
If it sounds almost too easy, there is a small catch.
“We’re going to need a good flood to move all that sediment through the system,” said Jenkin. “And you know how our rainfall has been recently.”
THE PLAN AND ITS PREDECESORS
In October of the year 2000, then-Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt symbolically pulled a 16,000-pound chunk of the Matilija Dam out of its face using a crane, the first step in the dam’s removal. In front of a crowd of Ventura County politicians and environmentalists, Babbitt promised to see the project through.
“We will produce the resources that will bring your plans to reality,” Babbitt said, as reported in the Los Angeles Times. “The benefits, in the long run, will far outweigh the costs.”
But as the years passed, that 8-ton chunk of the Matilija would be the only portion of the dam removed, as Babbitt left office with the Clinton administration and funding for the project never materialized.
By the mid-aughts, the Ventura County Watershed Protection District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had developed a new plan to slurry 2 million cubic yards of fine sediment and transport it downstream. The concept was deemed too costly, however, and that it would create too much of a burden on the downstream habitat as well as having a negative visual impact.
So it was that in 2010, the District partnered with the engineering, consulting and project management firm AECOM and consultant team Stillwater Sciences to evaluate alternative proposals, three of which made the final-concept shortlist during the March 2016 meeting where the Contract Management Team (involving six different agencies and interested parties, including Surfrider) made the final decision.
The three concepts revolved around management of the fine sediment. Eight million cubic yards of sediment have accumulated behind the dam since its construction, making the dam unusable for its original purpose.
“There are only about 500 acre-feet of storage of what was originally 30,000 acre-feet; it doesn’t provide any water storage of any significance, and no flood protection of any significance,” said Peter Sheydayi, deputy director of the Watershed Protection District and head engineer on the dam removal project. Sheydayi adds that the dam has weakened and would need reinforcing should it remain. On top of the environmental issues concerning fish habitat and such, Sheydayi says that the dam is “trapping sediment that should be on our beaches here in Ventura and down the coast to Oxnard.”
The plan involves drilling two 12-foot-diameter orifices 10 feet up from the base of the face of the dam, with loose holes drilled alongside for charges to be placed. Once a rainy winter comes along — and a large enough storm is forecast — the charges would be blown, the plugs destroyed, and the water and sediment sitting behind the dam for decades would begin to flow down the river.
This, of course, means that downriver infrastructure will need to be evaluated. Sheydayi says that the District has begun working on plans to either install levies or reinforce existing infrastructure to withstand an influx of not only water but the gravel and cobble that would come with it.
Sheydayi says that two levies would need to be installed or modified: A new one along Oso Road in Meiners Oaks and an existing levy at Live Oak Acres near Santa Ana Boulevard would need to be reinforced and strengthened. Two bridges, one at Santa Ana Boulevard and the other at Camino Cielo, would need to be reconstructed; especially the latter, which is a low-bridge that is often overcome by water during heavy rain events.
Third, says Sheydayi, is to assure that water purveyors who make use of the river are not negatively impacted by the release. The city of Ventura, Meiners Oaks, the county of Ventura and Casitas Water District all make use of the river — the latter being the user of the largest amounts. A modification to the Robles Diversion, which brings water from the river to Lake Casitas, would need to be completed.
Sheydayi says that much of what needs to be done, however, won’t be known until after the water and sediment are released.
“Some of the possible impacts from dam removal on these water purveyors are not completely understood,” said Sheydayi. “It may make more sense to handle it as adaptive management than to do a bunch of construction and find out we didn’t need it.”
The estimated cost of the selected dam removal plan ranges from the (very) low-end estimate of $13 million to the high-end estimate of $30 million. The cost of modifying and reinforcing the downstream infrastructure, however, is unknown. A subcommittee was formed out of the March meeting to research the cost and acquire funding for the project, said Sheydayi, which should provide an updated estimate by early 2017.
UNPLUGGING THE FUNDING HOLE
Ventura headquartered Patagonia Outdoor Clothing & Gear has been a champion of dam removal across the country, producing the short documentary DamNation in 2014. The film details the national effort to remove old, obsolete dams from river systems, restoring rivers to their natural state. Matilija Dam is featured prominently, and became the face of the documentary, with a time-lapse video detailing the creation of the famous scissors graffiti on the face of the dam.
Patagonia has been a member of the Matilija Coalition for years, alongside Surfrider, Environmental Defense Center, American Rivers, California Trout and Friends of the River.
“We feel that the alternative and that consensus, vision and direction coming out of March, was the best possible result,” said Hans Cole, director of environmental campaigns and advocacy at Patagonia. At the meeting, Cole volunteered to become the funding committee chair. “After we had a vote and people put their stickers on the wall on which alternative they favored, I think everyone recognized that the next big step is to figure out how to fund this dam removal effort.”
So far, the committee has submitted two grant proposals. The first asks for $3.3 million in funds from the so-called Water Quality, Supply, and Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2014, also known as Prop 1, a $7.12 billion act that specifies $2.7 billion for water projects, stores, dams and reservoirs. This grant would assist the project in getting to the next level of design. The second, a coastal-resiliency grant submitted to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, asks for a little less than $1 million.
Cole says that he hopes to have a funding plan finished by fall or early 2017.
“We’re just eager to see this happen in a way that is best for the community and environment,” said Cole. “From this fall onward, we’re committed to be a part of this until that dam is out, and we’ll continue to put staff time and resources and our own grant money toward that goal.”
THE FUTURE IS BRIGHT
Paul Jenkin began his campaign to get the Matilija Dam removed in 1995, starting out with a bumper sticker his only tool. After approaching Beach Erosion Authority for Clean Oceans and Nourishment (BEACON), which was looking for solutions to beach erosion problems, Jenkin presented the dam removal idea and the project kicked off. BEACON filed a resolution of support and the first studies were completed in 1999.
Asked if he could imagine then that the dam might not be removed until 2020 or later, Jenkin laughed.
“No, I was pretty naive; I thought that once everybody thought it was a good idea that the project would just be underway. It’s much more complicated than I initially thought.”
As for an exact date when the dam may be removed, even two decades later, Jenkin says it’s hard to tell.
“It’s hard to predict exactly when the dam itself will come down, but we know that if we get this Prop 1 grant, we’ll be able to complete all the way through environmental review, so we’ll have a permitted project in 2019,” said Jenkin. “It’s likely that we’re going to need to go back into a wet period and have a couple big floods before we can take the dam out.”
With a possible end in sight, all parties involved are optimistic for the future.
“It’s a good feeling knowing that there actually is a solution to this. We’re working every day to try and make that happen,” said Jenkin.
On Thursday, Oct. 6, the Ventura River Watershed Council will meet to discuss the Matilija Dam Ecosystem Restoration Project at Oak View Community Center, 18 Valley Road in Oak View from 6 to 8 p.m. For more information, visit www.venturawatershed.org.
TOP: Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt speaks to a crowd of environmentalists and Ventura County politicians in front of the Matilija Dam in October in the year 2000.
BOTTOM: An 8-ton chunk of the Matilija dam is symbolically removed in October of the year 2000. This would be the only action taken on the dam as funding would fail to materialize in the coming years.