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Habitat plan proposes Searsville dredging; removal remains unclear

The current draft of the Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) covers many of the University’s current activities and several new activities at Searsville Dam, but the agreement makes no clear commitments to dealing with long-term changes to the controversial structure.

The University uses water from Searsville Lake, too rich in tannins and organic matter to drink, to irrigate the Stanford Golf Course and the landscaping and athletic facilities on the campus. Of the species covered by the HCP, Searsville Dam most strongly affects steelhead trout, which historically migrated to and from to ocean to spawn in the rivers above the dam.

Among the more routine activities covered by the HCP are continued water diversion from the reservoir for irrigation and fire protection, general dam cleaning and maintenance, and the continuation of all current Jasper Ridge research activities.

As for new activities, the HCP includes a commitment to spend $100,000 in the next 10 years on a study that will look into the feasibility of creating a fish passage at the dam for steelhead trout.

The agreement also covers maintenance dredging in Searsville Lake in order to extend the reservoir’s capacity and regain the 250 acre-feet of storage the reservoir provided in 2000. The reservoir’s original capacity was 1,000 acre-feet, and its current capacity is approximately 175 acre-feet.

Beyond these activities, the HCP makes no specific proposals or plans for dealing with large-scale changes to Searsville in the future.

Catherine Palter, the project manager for the plan, argues that the question of removing or modifying Searsville Dam is currently too uncertain and risk-laden to be addressed in the HCP. In order to ensure coverage for the maintenance and minor activities the University already undertakes at the dam, the writers of the HCP “really took a status quo approach,” said Palter.

Matt Stoecker, a vocal advocate for dam removal and the director of the non-profit group Beyond Searsville Dam, said what is being proposed is “basically stalling out on addressing the dam for quite a long time.” Even with the fish passage study, Stoecker said, Stanford’s proposed plan is “unclear and unspecific and doesn’t seem to commit them to much.”

Stoecker would much rather see a dam removal feasibility study in the HCP than the fish passage study that has been proposed, and he and his supporters hope to put steps toward dismantling the dam into the HCP.

Due to sediment run-off from the naturally erosive hills above the dam, Searsville Lake has lost nearly 90 percent of its original storage capacity, and the next big erosion event could completely fill the reservoir with sediment.

All parties involved agree that Stanford is going to have to do something about the dam and reservoir, and Jasper Ridge Director Philippe Cohen noted that “the only option not on the table is the status quo…even if you want to keep the way things are, you have to do something.”

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