Widgets Magazine

Feds confirm investigation of Searsville Dam operation

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has confirmed that Stanford University is under federal investigation for potential criminal violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in its operation of Searsville Dam. Investigators are probing University activities for the potential threat to steelhead trout, classified as an endangered species by NOAA.

According to Jim Milbury, a National Marine Fisheries Service public affairs representative, the investigation surrounds the question of whether the University is responsible for steelhead trout “take,” which according to the ESA means, “to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect [an NOAA listed animal] or attempt to engage in any such conduct.” In the past, this has covered a broad range of violations including blocking migratory passages and altering water supply.

No Stanford affiliate interviewed would comment on how the investigation would affect current operations at Jasper Ridge or at the University in general.

Operated by the University since 1919, the 65-foot-tall Searsville Dam was built in 1892 for water storage. The dam blocks steelhead trout from migrating to their historical habitat, and has spurred sedimentation that has reduced Searsville Lake to under 10 percent of its former capacity. According to a 2011 University press release, Stanford still uses the reservoir as a major source of the one million gallons in non-potable water supply used every day, including for irrigation and landscaping.

The University maintains that the dam is necessary water supply needs and protection of a new habitat that has sprung up after the dam’s construction. The University has also said the dam is important for flood concerns. However, the dam’s opponents argue that, in addition to controversial maintenance, the dam is unsafe. Stanford has not completed thorough inspection recommended by the California Division of Safety of Dams in 2007.

Dam-removal advocates also maintain the Searsville Dam is illegal because it violates the Endangered Species Act.

“It appears to us that Stanford intentionally did not tell the federal government about certain activities and construction they undertook because there were obvious connections to ESA issues,” said Matt Stoeker, a restoration ecologist and founder of Beyond Searsville Dam, a nonprofit organization advocating for the destruction of Searsville Dam.

In 2008, Stanford’s Board of Trustees introduced their Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) as part of an application for a 50-year Incidental Take Permit for four endangered species. If granted, the permit would allow the University to continue its normal activities and operations despite incidental harm to the covered animals.

Searsville Dam was excluded from the report pending an Alternative Study, for which Stanford chartered a steering committee composed of five faculty members.

On Dec. 6, 2012, Catherine Palter, associate director of land use and environmental planning, wrote a letter to NOAA on behalf of the University suspending Stanford’s application for the Incidental Take Permit for activities in the San Francisquito Creek Basin, where the dam is located, until the Alternative Study was completed.

However, Jasper Ridge Director and Steering Committee Co-chair Chris Field said that the committee has always had more long-term and big-picture goals for managing the watershed.

“In general, the Searsville steering committee wasn’t put together to manage… the [dam’s] near-term issues,” he said.

Both Milbury and Field said that they were not sure what prompted law enforcement to open the investigation.

“There is no question in my mind that they are causing take of steelhead and other species,” Stoeker said. “The feds don’t open a case [or] investigation into ESA violations unless they’re pretty confident that they’re going to find something.”

Stoeker also argued that Stanford was also under investigation for lacking the proper regulatory permits to operate the dam. He questioned whether Stanford properly notified the California Department of Fish and Game when it installed new booster pumps in the Searsville Diversion facility around 2008 despite a law requiring an entity to submit notice when it “substantially divert[s] or obstruct the natural flow of… any river, stream or lake.”

“[The investigation] is going to make Stanford realize that they can’t keep doing what they’ve been doing,” Stoecker said. “They’re going to have to make serious modifications to the dam or remove the dam to get into compliance with the [ESA].”

According to Milbury, “whoever operates the Searsville Dam” may face criminal charges if investigators find evidence of endangered species take.

“Under Section 9 of the ESA, there are penalties for taking endangered species,” he explained. “In this case there are criminal violations: no more than $50,000 per count, or imprisonment for not more than one year.”

  • james

    Stanford has operated this dam since 1919. The only thing I see from this article that Stanford did of any substance was to replace some aging booster pumps in 2008. As usual The Stanford Daily gives an extremely one-sided, biased report.

    Julia, couldn’t you find one person somewhere, anywhere to provide an explanation from Stanford’s point of view. How hard did you try to get Stanford’s perspective. My guess is little to no effort. Typical for the writing staff at the Daily.

    BTW, I have no connection to any of this. I just object to the constant one-side reporting by the Daily.

  • Matt Stoecker

    Thanks Julia for the great article. One thing I’d like to clarify is that our coalition does not assert, at this point, that the dam “is unsafe”. We are saying that there are serious dam safety concerns with the dam, which is classified by the US Army Corps of Engineers and state dam safety officials as a “high hazard” dam, that need additional investigation. State dam safety officials and our own research has identified several issues at Searsville Dam which we believe show the dam does not meet current dam safety guidelines (see below link for more detail in our letter to the State). The California Division of Safety of Dams is currently reviewing these safety concerns at Searsville and waiting for Stanford to carry out the foundation inspection they requested, which has not been carried out in over 40 years.

    Searsville Dam Safety Concerns letter to Division of Safety of Dams:


    Thanks again for your coverage of this important issue.

    -Matt Stoecker

    Director, Beyond Searsville Dam

  • Matt Stoecker

    Hi James,

    This was not replacement of aging pumps, but rather construction of a brand pumping station on the Searsville Diversion, reportedly without required permits. This new booster pump station, as Stanford now acknowledges in their Habitat Conservation Plan, adds new diversion capabilities and discharges new sediment and degraded water into listed critical habitat for steelhead in San Francisquito Creek.

    More info here:


    Thanks for considering,

    Matt Stoecker

  • Nicholas Baldo

    It’s pretty shameful how the anti-dam folks focus so narrowly on the wellbeing of trout. The trout do just fine in the current creek, and it’s entirely possible that a change in creek conditions could hurt them instead of help them. Furthermore there are tons of other species that use the lake and would suffer under a dam removal plan. The extra water it provides is just gravy. Dam removal is also a really ugly process that tends to damage the areas downstream for some time.

    And to The Stanford Daily, why so little from the employees who actually spend all day trying to protect the endangered species around campus? Are you going to run another story giving their side of the story?

  • cliff

    Trout are not doing just fine. The salmon that once lived there died off after the dam was built. The tons of other species are mostly not native to the watershed, and harmful to steelhead, salmon, and other threatened native species. Searsville Dam and Lake have been mismanaged for generations, and it’s time they paid the price for their neglect, uncaring attitude, and ignorance.

  • Nicholas Baldo

    You need to understand that getting rid of the dam will not miraculously bring back salmon and get rid of non-native species. It’s just another huge disturbance that has the potential to do harm, given how nonlinear the development of ecosystems is. Getting rid of the dam would, however, destroy one of the few lakes where important migrating birds can stop and rest.

    Stanford’s attitude toward the situation is anything but uncaring or ignorant. Smart ecologists are devoting their lives towards protecting the endangered species of Stanford’s campus. If you disagree with them, that’s one thing, but it’s foolish to impeach their character. They’re just trying to balance pros and cons to determine what to do next.

  • cliff

    Stanford’s character is lacking at best when it comes to Searsville Dam. There are nearby lakes and the bay for the birds. Stanford won’t even operate the old dam in a way that would benefit downstream life. It seems like they just don’t care, or don’t have the tools to do even this.

  • Nicholas Baldo

    There are also other creeks for trout, so that’s not really an argument. I don’t know why you think Stanford doesn’t care. Everything they’ve done indicates to me they want to understand as much as possible what is at stake before they risk doing something stupid.

    This isn’t a clear-cut “dam is good” or “dam is bad” situation. Life is more complicated than that.

  • Matt Stoecker

    Hi Nicholas,

    Please read the below Seattle Times article as just one example of dam removal leading directly to salmon and steelhead recovery:


    The non-native species in Searsville Reservoir rely on warm-water habitat and most/all of the fish species cannot survive in the natural cold-water creek habit, and will be eradicated with dam removal. Numerous studies show that bullfrogs would also be reduced in number with elimination of the artificial warm-water reservoir.

    Searsville Reservoir is not a “Lake” as you describe and the dam and reservoir ARE the “disturbance”, not the natural system. One thing that many dam-defenders fail to recognize is that the reservoir and deposited sediment have destroyed over 2.5 miles of 5 different streams, adjacent wetlands, and historic wetland ponds, in addition to acres of riparian forest and upland habitat. Native bird life has benefitted from other dam/reservoir removals as habitat value expands not shrinks. Most of the bird diversity associated with the current reservoir occurs in the willow riparian forest at teh edge of the reservoir, not the reservoir itself. Dam removal would expand the size and diversity of riparian forests and restore miles of stream and wetland habitat.

    I agree that there are some great ecologists and staff at Stanford, but their interests are often trumped by the interests of the water facilities and land and development staff. For example, in 2001 we formed the Searsville Workgroup with Stanford biologistsa nd other watershed stakeholders. We identified studies needed, got the Ca Dept of Water Resources to offer to conduct a Searsville Alternatives Study without charging Stanford, and we recommended that the University take the offer to assess ecological and other issues like flooding and identify alternatives. Stanford declined this generous offer over a decade ago and has dragged their feet ever since.

    I understand that you live at Stanford and are a supporter of the University. I to am a fan of the University doing the right thing. I was born at Stanford, my dad was the NCAA discuss champion at Stanford, my uncles went their, my grandmother worked there, I learned to ride my bike on campus, and I cheered for the Cardinal at football games throughout my upbringing. Like so many others connected to Stanford, I want them to do the right thing and practice the ecological and conservation principles many of the good professors there teach.

    I welcome you to review more information on our website and contact me anytime to discuss this issue that impacts us all.

    Thanks for considering,

    Matt Stoecker

    Director, Beyond Searsville Dam

  • Nicholas Baldo

    First of all there are huge and obvious differences between the Seattle context you link to and the San Francisquito context. For example, the Elwha RIver dam is very close to the river’s mouth, whereas at San Francisquito you have about ten miles of creek that Salmon could use as is. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought that there were a few Salmon in Walnut Creek, a bunch that go up the Sacramento, and basically none whatsoever in the San Francisco Bay. If removing Searsville Dam brings back Salmon, I would be absolutely shocked.

    The lake was a “disturbance” over a hundred years ago when it was built. Since then a beautiful ecosystem has grown up around it, and it is every bit as “natural” as what was there before. If you love Salmon and Steelhead that’s cool, but I question a value system that seems to place so much emphasis on one or two species.

    I think it’s a mistake to trivialize Stanford’s needs vis a vis water. Like it or not, California needs all the water it can get both now and especially in the future. Searsville dam’s contribution is limited but still significant. Do you want to dam up some other river in the future to replace the lost water? Are you at all concerned about the effect climate change will have on California’s water resources?

    I’ll have to take your word on what happened in 2001, but as for right now, I know for a fact that Stanford is studying this matter very carefully and cares about getting this right a great deal. Maybe this seems like foot dragging to someone who thinks the obvious answer is dam removal (and granted, decades went by with little forethought), but to me it seems like prudence. The bigger the potential disturbance, the more important it is to do your homework.

    I like to think of myself as a huge fan of San Francisquito Creek, since as an Illinois guy I tended to take nice big rivers for granted, and San Franciquito is the best we have over here.

  • clc53

    Other creeks don’t have the potential that the Corte Madera Cr. watershed has. Maybe that’s why it was dammed up in the first place. Go to beyondsearsvilledam. I grew up in San Francisquito Cr. Been to the dam site many times. The way the dam is being managed (no management) is criminal.

  • Matt Stoecker

    Hi Nicholas,

    San Francisquito Creek has the last consistent, annually documented, wild (genetically), steelhead run left in the entire South San Francisco Bay, as noted by state and federal resource agencies and local experts like the Center for Ecosystem management and Restoration. You continue to make false claims in this comment section and cite no data, but rather your “belief”. Please review the extensive data and reports about this watershed, fishery, and history of Stanford’s actions with this issue before you dive in with unsupported speculation. I have many good friends at Stanford (student, alum, and professors) that agree the University has failed miserably with their actions and representation of this issue. This doesn’t mean we all don’t want Stanford to do the right thing and come out of this showing true leadership.

  • Matt Stoecker

    Wow. Nicholas, let’s not forget who the feds are investigating here for violations. Please review the other dam removal cases I responded to you with on the other Daily article: White Salmon, Rogue, and Sandy Rivers, Battle Creek, and hundreds more on-line.

    -There are 13 miles (not 10 as you guess) downstream of Searsville to the Bay. You talk as if these available miles are adequate or enough, but as noted in numerous reports cited in Stanford’s own Habitat Conservation Plan, the dam degrades this entire reach by reducing water quality, reducing available summer flows, reducing habitat value, and harboring and dispersing non-native species along this reach that compete with and prey on native species, and not just steelhead.

    -You are incorrect about the absence of salmon in the Bay, both historically and presently. Please review the Center for Ecosystem Management and Restoration documents here ( http://www.cemar.org/steelheadproj.html ), Leidy historic salmon documentation report for the Bay, current salmon runs in Coyote Creek, Guadalupe Creek, Alameda Creek, and others streams in the South Bay. Please see Dr. Lanman’s summary of historic salmon documentation for San Francisquito Creek and adjacent streams (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Francisquito_Creek).

    -The scientific evidence is clear, and growing rapidly, that removing dams that block salmon and steelhead runs (present and historic) does result in these fish returning upstream, and in some cases immediately.

    – If you think Searsville Reservoir is a “beautiful lake”, “every bit as ‘natural’ as what was there before” then maybe I’m wasting my time here, but this statement could not be further from the truth and runs contrary to extensive and readily available research published by leading entities such as USGS and the National Academy of Science: dams degrade natural ecosystems and present dramatic and ongoing negative disturbances to the ecosystem.

    -On-stream reservoirs, like Searsville, are exactly the outdated technology that compromises California’s water future. They lose huge amounts of water to evaporation that would otherwise feed creeks and groundwater aquifers that provide a better source for storage and diversion when managed well. Searsville is almost gone as on-stream reservoirs lose storage capacity every year due to sedimentation. Stanford can and does already divert water and pump groundwater without other on-stream reservoirs and can readily replace the disappearing Searsville source with a damless diversion, wastewater reclamation (being developed by Stanford now), more water conservation measures, and groundwater recharge and management options. We are not advocating for reduced water for Stanford and the above options represent less harmful and more reliable water solutions moving forward; especially in the face of climate change.

    -It is amazing that you mention climate change above since Searsville Reservoir emits potent methane gas, the construction of the dam and filling of the reservoir cut down and submerged dozens of acres of riparian forest and upland vegetation that stored carbon instead of emitting greenhouse gases, one of the biggest ecological threats from climate change is due to migration barriers that prevent aquatic species from migrating upstream to colder and perennial stream reaches, and Searsville prevents sediment transport to the SF Bay where wetlands are at risk of being destroyed due to sea level rise and the lack of needed sediment from streams to build up and survive the rising seas.

    – You write: “The bigger the potential disturbance, the more important it is to do your homework.” Agreed! We have been. Please review the info I reference above. As for the 2001 Searsville Dam Alternatives Study Stanford declined please read about it here:


    I agree with you that San Francisquito Creek is the best we have in our area and thousands of us hope that Stanford will show real leadership and treat the watershed and surrounding communities with respect.

  • Nicholas Baldo

    First of all, no one is disputing that steelhead trout are cool and that San Francisquito is an important home for them. But what is false about saying that there are other creeks for steelhead trout? There are steelhead scattered all along the west coast of the U.S., the Central Valley, and even Siberia, in hundreds upon hundreds of creeks, including others in the San Francisco Bay area. I’m not a perfect human being, but that claim is correct. See attached pictures from e.g., http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/fish/steelheadtrout.htm

    If you want to say that being blocked from the higher portions of the San Francisquito watershed limits breeding ground available to steelhead, it is perfectly reasonable to counter by saying that getting rid of the lake eliminates an important rest stop for migrating birds. I know your claims about bird diversity in the riparian zones, etc…, but there are other well-informed ecologists who have told me that the lake really is really important for them. I’m just objecting to the black and white way this issue is talked about.

    My larger point is just that we should not be overly critical of the scientists who study this watershed for a living, and that we should let them do their jobs. I’ve been over the material you’ve put together many times in the last few years and studied this issue closely myself. Some of it is enlightening, and I commend you for your efforts. However, you only ever present the side of the story that fits your desired conclusions. I’m not claiming to have all the answers, I just think that the absolute certainty your organization brings to the issue isn’t helping.

    Also, I would add that I searched this comment thread for forms of the word ‘belief’, which you quote, and could only find two instances. Both your writing, not mine.

  • Matt Stoecker

    You discounted the uniqueness of the run of steelhead in San Francisquito Creek and ignore the rarity of this genetically wild strain in the South SF Bay. Of course there are other steelhead creeks, I didn’t dispute that. I’ve lived in Siberia and studied salmonids there. None of those other steelhead runs benefit the ecosystem of the San Francisquito Creek watershed by swimming ocean derived nutrients upstream and spreading them throughout the watershed to benefit all of the animals and even forest health. Anadromous fish populations are important for the health of each watershed they occur in. The forests upstream of Searsville have not received this annual pulse of ocean nutrients for over 120 years, that’s an ongoing and limiting disturbance.

    You must be getting bird perspectives from Philippe Cohen at Jasper Ridge. This perspective is flawed, as supported by recent studies showing benefits to native wildlife with dam removal over artificial reservoir habitat. In addition, there were natural open-water ponds submerged by the reservoir that could be restored and the Upper Reservoir would not necessarily go away. Plus, the notion that eliminating the reservoir habitat is a lose ignores that over 2 miles of stream would be restored along with ponds and extensive riparian forests larger than what occurs there today. Finally, there is no shortage of “reservoir” habitat in California or the west. Check google earth to see how many reservoir exist within a 10 minute flight of Searsville Dam; a lot. Recent University and National Marine Fisheries Service collaborative studies on the Elwha River concluded greater biodiversity with dam removal and natural conditions as compared to artificial reservoir habitat.

    I am one of the scientist you mention that studies this watershed for a living. With all due respect, I don’t think you have “been over the material” I have put together “many times” and “studied the issue closely” or you would not be making the claims you are making in this thread or accusing me or our coalition of being one-sided, only focussed on trout, or deserving of “shame”. The insults are disrespectful and not appreciated. We are not claiming “absolute certainty”, we are the ones that have pushed for over a decade to get Stanford to work with the surrounding communities to conduct an alternatives study to make the most informed decision possible. Stanford has avoided gaining information, not us. I encourage you to research recent and current USGS, National Academy of Science, and other resource agency and University reports on dam removal outcomes and let me know if there conclusions that dam removal benefits native ecosystem health is incorrect. I will happily change my perspectives on this issue if you present me with the data.

    I did not quote you as using the term “belief”, but rather used the quotation marks to highlight the word and your presented beliefs as compared to the response and facts I present.