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Stanford should abandon the Searsville Dam

It seems absurd to me and my boys that people in the San Francisco Bay Area drive so far to get a taste of nature. As Menlo Park residents, we have a wonderful nature area right down our street, just a couple of blocks away.

It is the San Francisquito Creek, which, thanks to historic conflict between local governments, is the only major creek in the South Bay that has not been channeled in concrete. The creek lies on the border between the cities of Menlo Park and Palo Alto, as well as the border between San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties. Local authorities were never able to agree on how to divide costs for stream channelization. While other “creeks” like the Matadero Creek in Palo Alto were turned into dead concrete channels decades ago, the San Francisquito Creek retains its natural character and is generally teeming with life.

My boys and I have hiked up and down San Francisquito Creek hundreds of times. Though we’ve caught crawdads and skipped rocks, we also found dead steelhead trout stranded near a stagnant pool that was left behind as the creek ceased to flow during the late spring of 2013. Other steelhead have encountered the same fate in recent years. California’s wild steelhead are a highly resilient species, but they are struggling to survive in Bay Area streams and elsewhere due to widespread loss of adequate habitat and diversion of critical flows.

Stanford University’s 125-year old Searsville Dam and other water diversions have kept the San Francisquito Creek much drier than it was for years before Searsville was built. When water was more plentiful on this and other creeks, thousands of steelhead and salmon would swim many miles upstream from the San Francisco Bay to spawn eggs in the headwater streams of the San Francisquito watershed. Today, the creek’s native steelhead population is listed as threatened, while the University continues to block their upstream migration by holding back water from local streams in order to irrigate its water-intensive golf course.

Fortunately, Stanford may be close to a turning point regarding Searsville Dam. For over a year, the University has joined with local watershed groups to study what to do with the antiquated dam, and the university has pledged to make recommendations to campus leaders by the end of 2014. Multiple low-impact alternatives, such as a moderate expansion to Stanford’s existing off-stream Felt Lake reservoir, will result in a more efficient and resilient water source for Stanford.

The San Francisquito Creek watershed presents a unique opportunity to recover a critical habitat for Stanford’s native steelhead and other wildlife. If the University agrees to finally remove the Searsville Dam and its sediment-choked reservoir, the network of creeks on Stanford lands can once again flourish and support a thriving wild steelhead run that Stanford and the surrounding community can be proud of.

What will Stanford do? My boys and I hope that my alma mater will follow its own stewardship and sustainability goals by prioritizing the recovery of the creek and wildlife that run through the heart of campus and removing Searsville Dam.

Mike Lanza ‘84

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