Coastal Preservation
April 06 2016

Solution for Matilija Dam!

Surfrider Foundation's Ventura County Chapter and our partners in the Matilija Coalition have been working since 2000 to develop a plan to remove the obsolete, non-functional Matilija Dam from the Ventura River. Removal of the dam will be the first step in recovery of the bioregion. Two of the significant benefits of dam removal will be recovery of the Southern Steelhead trout and restoration of the natural sediment supply to the beaches of Ventura. Although the benefits of dam removal are widely recognized, gaining consensus on a removal plan and securing funding for the work has been challenging.

In 2012, the California Coastal Conservancy agreed to sponsor an independent study to find a way to manage the fine sediment trapped behind the dam.  Three dam removal concepts were developed that resolve the issues that stalled the project in 2008.  Each of these alternatives greatly reduce the cost of the project and enhance the long term benefits of dam removal.

On March 17, 2016, the Matilija Dam "Design Oversight Group" met to determine consensus around one of the three alternatives and how to move the project forward. Following a long discussion, the issue was put to a vote. The result was almost unanimously (95%) in favor of Dam Removal Concept 2, which is inelegantly titled "Uncontrolled Orifices with Optional Gates."  What it actually consists of is to simply blow holes in the base of the dam!  This solves the long-standing question of how to deal with the silt trapped upstream. The group collectively decided to save millions of dollars by letting the river do the work. Based on experience with Condit Dam in Washington, experts determined that a single flood can flush the fine sediments from behind the dam straight out to the ocean. This vote included the local water districts, the City of Ventura, resource agencies including NOAA, Fish and Wildlife Service, State Dept of Fish and Wildlife, Army Corps of Engineers, as well as Matilija Coalition member organizations.

Consensus on the "low level outlet approach" to dam removal clears a path forward that greatly reduces the cost of the project.  This decision is significant in that it marks a departure from almost 15 years of discussion in which sediment was seen as damaging to both local interests and the river, and in which the Corps of Engineers was perceived as the only path to funding the project.

The next step is to identify and secure funding to complete the necessary engineering and environmental permitting to get the project "shovel ready."  This work will likely take another couple of years.  Several stakeholder organizations have formed a funding subcommittee to collaborate and take the steps necessary to remove the dam in a reasonable time frame. Although it will likely be a few more years before the dam is removed, the Steelhead trout return and the beaches are again restored and maintained by sediment from the Ventura River watershed, agreement on a dam removal plan is a significant milestone.

Much credit should be given to long-time Matilija warrior Paul Jenkin as well as Matt Stoecker (DamNation) and Hans Cole (Patagonia Inc) who traveled to Washington DC in March 2016 to discuss the project with congressional representatives and appropriation staff.

Much more information on this project and the general subject of dam removals in coastal watersheds can be found on the Ventura River Ecosystem Blog, the website of the Matilija Coalition and in this Beachapedia article.