OPINIONS

Op-Ed: Understanding the issues behind Searsville Dam

The future of Searsville Dam and Reservoir, located in Stanford’s Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, is a complex and challenging topic. Unfortunately, recent news coverage has included incorrect information, much of it attributed to statements by Beyond Searsville Dam (BSD), an organization committed to the dam’s removal.

This misinformation requires clarification in three key areas.

First, Stanford is not violating the federal Endangered Species Act or any other state or federal law in its operation of the Searsville Dam, which was built in 1892 and acquired by the university in 1919. In fact, for the past decade, Stanford has worked with agencies like the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on a 50-year Habitat Conservation Plan designed to enhance campus habitats for protected species. The San Francisquito Creek watershed continues to host a healthy steelhead population, supported by Stanford’s efforts to manage and enhance the water and fishery resources.

NMFS has indicated that it is investigating whether or not the current operation of Searsville Dam has led to “take” of steelhead. “Take” means an action that kills, harms or harasses a threatened or endangered species. The Jan. 8 Stanford Daily story quoted BSD as suggesting that the federal government does not open a case unless investigators are “pretty confident that they’re going to find something.” That is simply not true.

NMFS has informed Stanford that its policy is to begin an investigation whenever it receives a complaint. Stanford will provide NMFS the information it needs to assess such a complaint. The university is confident an investigation will confirm Stanford’s commitment to protecting all covered species and complying with all environmental laws.

Second, the university is not under investigation by any other agency for lacking regulatory permits to operate the dam, despite assertions made to The Daily to the contrary. Stanford has sought and received all appropriate federal and state permits for work there and in the San Francisquito Creek watershed.

Third, Searsville Dam is seismically safe and is regularly inspected by the Division of Safety of Dams. That agency reiterated the dam’s condition in a Dec. 28, 2012 letter to BSD and copied to Stanford. Specifically, the letter says that “the dam is considered safe for continued use, and no additional engineering or geologic analyses involving the dam, abutments or foundation are judged necessary at this time.”

A 12-person faculty and staff Steering Committee began actively studying the future of Searsville Dam and Reservoir in June 2011. Expert consultants specializing in several areas – including engineering and hydrology, ecosystems and biological/fisheries resources – are examining key technical issues. The ecosystem created by Searsville Dam now includes significant wetlands acreage upstream of the dam that host many species of birds and bats, among others. The historic trapping of sediment behind the dam has resulted in a downstream urban environment that has relied on that sediment being trapped. How, for instance, would removal or modifications to the dam affect the wetlands? How would changes in sediment flow in the creek affect downstream neighbors? These are just two examples of the complex considerations that must be taken into account.

That’s why Stanford has invited participation in the study by local community neighbors and relevant agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the California State Water Resources Control Board and the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority.

Possible alternatives to be evaluated by the Searsville Steering Committee are expected to include: “no action,” or letting the reservoir fill with sediment; dam modification; dam removal; sediment removal for reservoir capacity restoration; alternative water supply and storage strategies; fish passage around the dam; and possible combinations of these actions.

The future of Searsville Dam and Reservoir deserves careful study with a goal of reaching a recommended course of action that thoughtfully balances all the considerations. To rush to judgment with only one outcome in mind (removal of the dam) would be irresponsible.

When Jane and Leland Stanford deeded their farm to Stanford University, they made clear that administrators were to responsibly steward the land for the benefit of generations to come. Stanford will continue to act responsibly and deliberately when it comes to assessing the future of Searsville Dam.

Jean McCown
Stanford Director of Community Relations
Co-Chair of the Searsville Alternatives Study Steering Committee

  • Guest

    THANK YOU for writing this. It’s great to finally see the Searsville Alternatives Study Steering Committee’s side of the story featured in the Daily.

  • Nate Foote

    This was both well written and poignant. It is disappointing to see that an article that helps to disabuse the Stanford community of propagandist misinformation has been relegated to the Op Ed section of the Daily.

  • Matt Stoecker

    Thank
    you Jean for taking the time to write this opinion piece. We would like to
    respond to several statements made:

    Jean-
    “recent news coverage has included incorrect information, much of it
    attributed to statements by Beyond Searsville Dam (BSD)”

    BSD-
    It is unfortunate that, as in the past, you attribute incorrect information written
    by a reporter, not us, with our group (BSD). For example, reporters have often
    stated that we say the dam is unsafe, when we have stated that we have safety
    concerns associated with the dam, and that State and Federal agencies classify
    the dam as “high hazard”. We cannot be held responsible for incorrect
    statements made by reporters or interpretations of what they thought they heard
    from us, or anyone else interviewed, including Stanford representatives.

    Jean-
    “Stanford is not violating the federal Endangered Species Act or any other
    state or federal law in its operation of the Searsville Dam, which was built in
    1892 and acquired by the university in 1919.”

    BSD-
    While you are free to share your opinion and that of Stanford, this statement
    is premature as federal investigators are actively investigating whether or not
    this statement is true. Federal investigators will not concur with this
    definitive statement at this time. In addition, the feds have said that they
    are not just investigating Searsville Dam, but rather the entire Searsville
    Diversion, including recent, reportedly unpermitted construction and
    modification of this diversion without appropriate local, state, and federal
    permits.

    Jean-
    “The San Francisquito Creek watershed continues to host a healthy
    steelhead population, supported by Stanford’s efforts to manage and enhance the
    water and fishery resources.”

    BSD-
    San Francisquito Creek steelhead are listed as threatened with extinction under
    the Endangered Species Act. Searsville Dam has cut of approximately 20 miles of
    former spawning and rearing habitat, or about 1/3 of the watershed, while
    degrading habitat downstream and reducing stream flows. Despite your statement
    above, no wildlife resource agency, institution, or biologist has ever concluded
    that the San Francisquito Creek steelhead population is “healthy”.

    Jean-
    “The Jan. 8 Stanford Daily story quoted BSD as suggesting that the federal
    government does not open a case unless investigators are “pretty confident that
    they’re going to find something.” That is simply not true. NMFS has informed Stanford
    that its policy is to begin an investigation whenever it receives a
    complaint.”

    BSD-
    As with other agencies, NMFS policy it to consider a complaint, or in this case
    new information discovered while consulting with Stanford on the Habitat
    Conservation Plan, and if they determine there is sufficient information to
    suggest a violation they will investigate. NMFS does not always start a formal
    investigation “whenever” it receives a complaint. In this case, NMFS
    has reportedly decided to open this investigation based on the unfolding facts,
    not an external complaint.

    Jean-
    “… the university is not under investigation by any other agency for
    lacking regulatory permits to operate the dam, despite assertions made to The
    Daily to the contrary. Stanford has sought and received all appropriate federal
    and state permits for work there and in the San Francisquito Creek
    watershed.”

    BSD-
    Whether formal or not, additional agencies, such as the Department of Fish and
    Wildlife (DFW), are actively collecting data on and assessing Stanford
    operations at Searsville Dam and the connected private water supply system and
    deciding whether or not Stanford does, in fact, have all required permits to
    operate these systems. In the past DFW has stated that Stanford needs a Streambed
    Alteration Agreement to operate Searsville Dam and many groups, scientists, and
    lawyers continue to support this perspective. Stanford specifically excluded
    Searsville Dam from their Steelhead Habitat Enhancement Project, which included
    all other stream diversions. Stanford has significantly modified (and
    pressurized) this diversion in recent years without certain permits. Stanford
    has not sought or received state of federal permits to operate Searsville Dam
    and currently does not have a DFW Streambed Alteration Agreement or NMFS
    Incidental Take Permit to operate Searsville Dam and recently built
    modifications to the diversion.

    Jean-
    “The ecosystem created by Searsville Dam now includes significant wetlands
    acreage upstream of the dam that host many species of birds and bats, among
    others.”

    BSD-
    Artificial reservoir habitat and dam operations have been shown by leading
    scientific institutions, including USGS and the National Science Foundation, to
    degrade native habitat and threaten native species. Stanford representatives
    often buck this accepted science and claim that, somehow, their dam and
    reservoir have beneficial habitat, while not acknowledging that over 2 miles of
    stream habitat, dozens of acres of riparian forest, and natural wetland ponds were
    destroyed by the dam and reservoir and could be revived with dam removal (as is
    occurring at recently conducted projects across the country). We support a plan
    that improves overall habitat conditions for all native species, and leading
    scientists and reports show that eliminating artificial reservoirs and dams and
    restoring native habitat and watershed function benefits native species and
    ecosystems overall. It is a false choice to portray the Searsville decision as
    ether maintaining or losing wetland habitat or favoring certain species at the
    detriment of others.

    Jean-
    “The future of Searsville Dam and Reservoir deserves careful study with a
    goal of reaching a recommended course of action that thoughtfully balances all
    the considerations. To rush to judgment with only one outcome in mind (removal
    of the dam) would be irresponsible.”

    BSD-
    We agree, and BSD has largely been formed because, for over a decade, Stanford
    would not assess all of the options and dam removal was ignored. In fact, the
    2001 Searsville Workgroup, we started with Stanford and surrounding community
    representatives, recommended that Stanford accept an offer by the Department of
    Water Resources to study all of the possible alternatives for Searsville.
    Stanford declined this generous and needed study over a decade ago. More
    recently, Stanford proposed a 50-year Habitat Conservation Plan that specifically
    excludes Searsville Dam, while including the rest of the campus. This plan is
    far from thorough and comprehensive. Despite the current path by the University
    to undertake the Searsville Alternatives Study (which we support), the original
    Habitat Conservation Plan, proposed only a few years ago, did rush to judgment,
    and, we believe, irresponsibly picked one outcome (dredging and maintaining the
    dam as is) without considering all of the options. We had to challenge
    Stanford’s premature and incomplete HCP (and federal wildlife agencies agreed)
    in order to prevent Stanford from taking an action without consideration of all
    options. We are glad that Stanford is finally committed to study all options,
    but it is disingenuous to imply that our group has rushed to judgment on one
    particular outcome when we have consistently argued for comprehensive
    assessment of all alternatives. In fact, Stanford has been the one in the recent
    past to propose moving forward with a plan that does not evaluate all options.
    BSD has never supported implementing a project without a comprehensive alternatives
    study and we have consistently offered funding support to Stanford and brokered
    the offer from the Department of Water Resources to carry out such a study
    (which Stanford turned down).

    Jean-
    “Stanford will continue to act responsibly and deliberately when it comes
    to assessing the future of Searsville Dam.”

    BSD-
    We welcome this perspective Jean, and truly believe that the Searsville
    committee contains members that are dedicated to doing the right thing, but
    please keep in mind that some of us have been working on this issue for 15
    years and actions by Stanford in the past have been far from collaborative and
    comprehensive. We welcome the recent new direction to finally assess all
    options at Searsville Dam and the increased participation by stakeholders
    impacted by any action to occur at Searsville Dam. These are two actions we
    have consistently advocated for since the late 1990’s.

    Sincerely,

    Matt Stoecker

    Director,
    Beyond Searsville Dam
    http://www.BeyondSearsvilleDam.org

  • Matt Stoecker

    Hi Nate,

    I’d be happy to talk to you about this issue and our coalition.

    We are part of the Stanford community as well and are not trying to abuse it, the opposite actually. We want to see Stanford come out of this Searsville situation as responsible stewards and leaders in reliable and low-impact water solutions.

    Thanks for your consideration,
    Matt

  • Nicholas Baldo

    “We are glad that Stanford is finally committed to study all options, but it is disingenuous to imply that our group has rushed to judgment on one particular outcome when we have consistently argued for comprehensive assessment of all alternatives.”

    All this time I thought that “Beyond Searsville Dam” was predicated on opposition to the dam, not just advocating further study.
    ————————
    From your homepage:

    “Sooner or later Searsville Dam must come down, and the whole San Francisquito Creek watershed can be treated as the ecological treasure that it is.”

    -Pete McCloskey, former U.S. Congressman, coauthor of the Endangered Species Act, San Francisquito Creek watershed resident and Stanford University School of Law 1953 alumnus. Beyond Searsville Dam Advisory Council.

    “Stanford has one of the most important dam-removal and ecosystem-restoration opportunities in the country, and can position itself as a leader in environmental stewardship and make huge progress in achieving its stated goal of being a more sustainable campus. Stanford has got to clean up their own backyard before people will take their sustainability and environmental message seriously. You are what you do, not what you say.”

    -Yvon Chouinard, owner of Patagonia and Beyond Searsville Dam Advisory Council.

    ————————–

    The definition of “rushed to judgement” is subjective, but your entire organization – from its name to its logo to the implications of every argument it makes – argues in favor of dam removal. This is the cause you’ve devoted your life to, so the right thing to do is to at least acknowledge that.

    My hunch is that no matter what the hypothetical alternatives analysis says, your response will be harsh criticism if it comes to any conclusion other than dam removal. Am I being unfair with that? You’ve studied the issue yourself and come to the conclusion (of which I am not convinced) that Searsville Dam needs to go, so could your mind even theoretically be swayed by another alternatives analysis?

    *Also should note that “Guest” comment from yesterday is mine. I clicked ‘delete’ so that I could post something longer, but instead of deleting the comment it just stripped my identity.

  • Matt Stoecker

    Sorry Nicholas, but you have it wrong again. Please research the history as I’ve suggested before and you will see that we have always (including our involvement with the San Francisquito Watershed Council) advocated for a comprehensive alternatives analysis at Searsville (something many leading biologists at Stanford supported as well despite being overruled by facilities staff). BSD was formed specifically because Stanford would not assess all of the options and avoided studying dam removal as one possible alternative. Stanford staff and students join our coalition in to ensure that this alternative was studied. Here is our long stated coalition mission:

    “We share a common interest in supporting actions to evaluate and consider removal of Stanford University’s Searsville Dam in a manner that is beneficial to protecting creekside communities, watershed health, and the San Francisco Bay.”

    Your hunch about us not considering the pending alternatives results is wrong and unfair. We would never support an alternative that resulted in an overall negative impact to ecosystem and watershed health or compromised public safety downstream. Many of us have spent a large part of our lives working to restore and protect San Francisquito Creek and would never compromise this long-term goal. Please consider that many folks at Stanford have made up their minds that Searsville Dam should not be removed before it is even studied (maybe you included). At this point we feel that dam removal likely presents the best possible outcome based on sound science coming from our nations top scientific institutions (USGS, Nat. Science Foundation and others) that dam removal has been quantitatively shown to benefit native species and watershed health. If this study shows a different conclusion, we are committed to considering this conclusion and alternative recommendations.

  • Nicholas Baldo

    OK. I’m sure that the “Un-Dam the Bay Dinner Benefit” featuring “Matt Stoeker’s In-The -Trenches-Perspective Of The Importance Of Steelhead Restoration And Dam Removal” was all about making sure that the alternatives analysis is done by the book. The trout in the picture with the word bubble saying “WE’RE DAMMED IF YOU DON’T” featured on your website is surely just trying to convey the importance of all stakeholders being fairly represented.

    (http://www.beyondsearsvilledam.org/Beyond_Searsville_Dam/Events.html and attached photo)

    My point isn’t that you don’t have a right to your point of view, or that you haven’t examined evidence and led yourself to a conscionable conclusion. It’s just that you’re trying to portray you and your organization as non-biased actors in this debate when it’s obvious to anyone who spends ten seconds on your website that you are heavily committed to your position.

    It’s clear that you disagree with this characterization, and it must just be the case that there is literally nothing good about the dam at all, and that the ecosystem around it is completely inferior to a hypothetical restored creek in absolutely every way, shape and form. Because that’s the only way that a non-biased source could justifiably include no positive treatment of the dam whatsoever. If you are indeed a reliable source that could be swayed by future analyses, then it would be helpful to add a section emphasizing the dam’s benefits and why the decision needs more study. People like me would start to take you seriously.

    Personally I haven’t made up my mind about whether I support removal, dredging, or letting the reservoir fill, because every time I’ve studied the issue I come away with a bunch of pros and cons that I’m not able to weigh in a way that I find personally satisfying. I lean towards dredging, but honestly I could be persuaded of anything at this point. Every source I’ve ever read has been similarly conflicted except for Beyond Searsville Dam, which seems from the outside to have an unshakeable conviction in the desirability of dam removal. Maybe that’s just me?

    You claim you will have an open mind about the alternatives analysis, and that’s great! More power to ya. I’m personally skeptical, but that’s of course just my opinion on a hypothetical.

  • Matt Stoecker

    As we’ve consistently stated, including above, the science clearly supports dam removal as the best option for restoring native species and watershed health in all such studies we have reviewed and we believe this principle applies to our watershed and Searsville Dam as well. However, unlike some at Stanford, we have also consistently advocated for a comprehensive alternatives analysis with consideration of all the options prior to any action. Stanford proposed actions without studying dam removal and we therefore had to advocate that this lone, ignored option be studied. The wildlife agencies and eventually Stanford agreed. So, yes, we support dam removal as a viable option and want to see it studied to confirm or reject that perspective. I’m not sure why you think we would advocate for a study of all options and hope it is not done by the book.

    Yes, in fact, we are advocating that all stakeholders are being fairly represented. Despite requests from agencies and us, Stanford started an internal study that left stakeholders out. It appears just last week that Stanford is rethinking this approach and is now inviting public stakeholders to participate in a new group. This is welcome news and we gave Stanford props for this decision.

    I’m proud that Dan Malloy and friends put on that Un-Dam the Bay fundraiser for us and made those invitations. They did an awesome job.

    I don’t “have a right to my own point of view”??

    I’m not trying to portray our group as non-biased, many of our supporters are very biased based on their research and the existing science of dam removal versus other options. Yes, we “are heavily committed to our position”… just as some folks at Stanford are, who say dam removal is not an option worth studying. I think you agree that all options should be studied and we have pushed for over a decade to ensure that they are.

    I can understand your impression about our desire to see dam removal. You are correct. I’ve always agreed that this situation is complex and there is no easy answer. This is why, for so many years, we have worked to get offers of funding for Stanford to conduct the study that is fortunately now underway. Stanford did not accept any funding or offers to study this by the State, but we are glad it is happening now and have thanked Stanford for this effort. Stanford has chosen some great consultants, which we recommended in the stakeholder meeting for the study. We are committed to the process and to evaluating the results with an open mind.

  • clc53

    Dam removal would be the best option by far for steelhead and perhaps even salmon recovery in the San Francisquito Creek watershed. Dam removal’s have proven.
    this.

    The main stake holders are Stanford Golf Course, Webb Ranch, and federally endangered, or in the case of salmon, extinct species. We as a people are doing everything we can, to bring back these important food and recreational fishes wherever possible.

    Without Searsville Dam steelhead and perhaps salmon would once again use the most significant arm of the watershed Corta Madera Creek. Salmon making their way thru Palo Alto Ca. to spawn, now that could make national news.

    Careful planning would insure the golf course, and Webb Ranch, would survive. Apparently the plumbing is already in place.

  • Nicholas Baldo

    You certainly do have a right to your opinion, as I hoped that part of my comment would be interpreted. I also completely agree that things should be done by the book and that all stakeholders (including the trout in the picture!) are represented.

    I think we will have to agree to disagree on the clarity of ecology’s lessons about how to manage the future (or lack thereof) of Searsville Dam. To me they are about as clear as the creek after a major erosion event.

    However, since it seems that if Stanford, your organization, and this humble internet commenter are in agreement on the advisability of the alternatives analysis, then I don’t know what else there is worth arguing about. At least until that comes out.

    Looking forward to the report, Jean!

  • Nicholas Baldo

    While I’m sympathetic to the idea of nifty trout in Portola Valley, valuing them based on their worth as food seems odd, given that steelhead are an endangered species. Do endangered species taste better or something?

    I would also add that salmon are not, in fact, extinct.

  • Matt Stoecker

    Agreed!

  • Timmy Thalweg

    If Stanford is contributing to the “healthy” steelhead population in San Francisquito Creek, why are these fish listed under the Endangered Species Act? What specific measures taken by Stanford contribute to the health of this endangered species? Are there mimimum stream flows? Target smolt to adult spawning ratios? Recovery goals based on historic abundance? Why was Searsville Dam excluded from the habitat conservation plan cited by Ms. McCown? What is the deadline for the faculty committee to make a recommendation for a plan of action at Searsville? Will process be the final product in this case? Studies are a fantastic alternative to making difficult policy decisions…

    Claims made by Ms McCown in this op-ed don’t hold water. If Stanford is truly committed to the health of San Francisquito watershed steelhead, the only responsible decision is to take the dam out. Fiscally, it won’t make much sense to retrofit a 120 year old structure with fish passage. Across the country, utility companies whose primary responsibility lies with shareholders are demolishing old dams, because in the face of modern environmental laws, it’s simply the cheapest way to comply with said laws. Dam demolition above all else is simply a sound business decision. Stanford is dithering here, maybe because it’s primary responsibility is to faculty and alumni, whose apparent need for a facade of a green oasis in a semi-arid landscape supercedes the facade of environmental accountability propped up by Stanford University and the office of community relations.

    With state, federal and municipal help, Stanford could be the primary sponsor of a world-leading urban watershed restoration project, one that would demonstrate once and for all that it’s not only possible, but desirable to do a whole lot more than talk about creating solutions to pressing Western water problems.

  • clc53

    Salmon in the San Francisquito Creek watershed. The reason being lack of water.and gravel flows.

  • clc53

    You hit the nail on the head Timmy…

  • Mike D

    Whether or not Stanford is violating the ESA is not determined by compliance with FWS or NMFS requirements, and cannot be decided by your own personal opinion. It will be decided in a court if and when an environmental groups decides to litigate the issue.