Widgets Magazine


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

  • Susan

    I completely agree. Thank you Mike Lanza for this needed alumni voice. Stanford cannot continue operating this harmful dam and expect people to believe their sustainability message. Not to mention it makes economic sense to remove it and replace with a more reliable water use strategy. The world is watching Stanford.

  • skullbreathe

    I hope for serious suggestions. Past brilliant suggestion was turning off the campus fountains that saved less than 3% of the total water reduction. In the meantime the fountains became trash strewn eye sores..

  • Regenz

    What is the average flow above and below the dam? If you don’t have that info, you shouldn’t be writing articles like this.

  • Cliff

    enjoyed your piece. I would like to think that Stanford could also consider corralling waste water for watering the golf course, and their other ag needs. The initial cost would seem expensive, but the pay off for future generations is priceless.

  • Candid One

    Mike Lanza, this drought should be more instructive to you than it evidently has been. In no way, does the limited storage and/or diversion make much difference in this drought. Stanford’s various diversion structures don’t affect the drought…they’re mostly dry today. Some of that diversion serves as ground water recharge, when there’s enough to divert.

    Cliff, Stanford has been using well water for its grounds irrigation for decades. If Mr. Lanza had visited Escondido Village in the evenings during his student years, he would’ve smelled the excess dissolved solids as the lawn sprinklers were used. He might also have noticed how Stanford had been phasing-out the outdoor drinking fountains which had been supplied by well water. The increasing use of that region groundwater had been overdrawing that resource; recharge wasn’t replenishing the aquifer as fast as it was being depleted. Consequently, that well water has commonly exceeded potability standards and can serve mostly as gray water. This has been a common dilemma throughout the state over the decades.

    The severe drought of 1976-77 had instigated much attention to such water resource issues throughout the region. Stanford was not the least of those who have paid attention. Since since before that drought, Stanford has paid attention. That’s the primary flaw with this OpEd piece and most of these comments…grossly inadequate background research into a profound issue–which is hardly new to Stanford or to this state. Since that late-Seventies drought, the population of this state has nearly doubled, and that is particularly notable in the population explosion in the SF Bay area.

  • Cliff

    Never said anything about well water. I wanted to focus some emphasis on all the water going down the drain every day. Which could be used to water the golf course and other landscaping needs. We want to restore a natural resource, steelhead and ultimately salmon, to an area where they once thrived, and now no longer survive. It’s important because the rest of the watershed is relatively intact in comparison to most watersheds in the South Bay. Removing the dam would add a whole lot to the natural legacy of the Jaspar Ridge Preserve, which is currently crippled and missing a leg.

  • Matt Stoecker

    Candid One, Please see the below link for information about how Stanford’s Searsville Dam and diversion dewater the creek downstream.


    All dams and reservoirs impact drought conditions, whether they divert water out of the creek or not, due to loss of water from reservoir evaporation and degrading water quality downstream due to eutrophication and warmer water temperatures. These impacts are both increased during warm, drouth years. Corte Madera Creek ,upstream from Searsville Dam at Westridge Bridge, flows year round as per Stanford’s own flow measurements.

    Stanford does have wells, but they divert more creek water at their three diversion facilities for irrigation than well water. We may agree that storing water underground and using wells wisely is a better option than storing water out in a sunny reservoir filling in with sediment.

  • JackHammer

    What part of “op-ed” don’t you understand? And no, you actually don’t need that data to come to a sound conclusion that the searsville dam is an impediment to a sustainable microenvironment.