Dam Busting: A Concrete Victory for Fish, Jobs

Dam busting has local economic benefits other than clearing the way for an endangered species or restoring a watershed.
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Dam busting has local economic benefits other than clearing the way for an endangered species or restoring a watershed.

Perhaps you’ve seen the American Express TV ad where the famously contentious outdoorsman and clothesmaker Yvon Chouinard looks into the camera and declares, “I’m a dam buster.” He’s not alone in sharing that sentiment, as a sediment-choked dam in Southern California has become the bête noir of conservationists living there.

A menacing wedge of concrete jammed between the steep walls of a canyon in the Los Padres National Forest, the Matilija Dam looms over the Ventura River. Built in 1947 both to store precious rainwater and preventing flooding when it did, the dam no longer can fulfill its original purposes and has proved to be a huge obstacle for the survival of steelhead trout, a beleaguered fish once abundant in Southern California.

An estimated 5 million to 7 million cubic yards of sediment are thought to be trapped behind the Matilija Dam, filling it to 95 percent of capacity with a mix of dirt and debris. The dam both prevents sediment from flowing downstream and compromises the habitat of steelhead trout.

“[It was] a politically bad decision that will take decades to undo,” says Paul Jenkin, founder of the anti-dam Matilija Coalition in Ventura. And this structure is slated to be removed, but how and when have been open questions for more than a decade.

The Ventura River, although rather minor, reflects the condition of rivers throughout the American West, some 90 percent of which have been dammed or diverted for hydroelectricity and water-reclamation projects. And for every big dam that some may clamor to see removed — or, in some rare cases, built — there are countless culverts and diversions that pose similar threats.

New studies suggest that, rather than being the job-killers that green initiatives are often depicted as, these projects intended to protect the environment and improve watersheds also offer a solution for a hurting construction industry.

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Steelhead are a hardy species of sea-going fish that spend their early lives in fresh water before venturing downstream into the open ocean, then returning to spawn in the river as mature adults. (Some steelhead in mountain streams don’t migrate to the ocean, and are known as rainbow trout. Meanwhile, steelhead caught at sea are sometimes known as salmon trout. They are all the same species: Oncorhrynchus mykiss.)

Experts say thousands of steelhead thrived in the Ventura River until the dam’s construction prevented their migration. An abrupt decline in their numbers followed.

The Ventura River’s Oncorhrynchus mykiss might have slipped into oblivion, too, without much comment, until the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration determined that the steelhead trout native to Southern California were genetically distinct from salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest, and listed them as endangered in 1997.

Historically, even under optimum conditions, steelhead had to be rugged. “I’d make the analogy: These fish go through a series of rigorous boot camps, and only the toughest of the tough survive to produce more of their kind. But steelhead can’t fly or crawl under a rock — although they sometimes do,” said Mark Capelli, steelhead recovery coordinator for the NOAA, with a mix of humor and admiration.

“Earthquakes, wildfires, all natural phenomena that are the hallmarks of California, in the long term, are contributing to the evolution of the species,” he added. “In my view, they are the best biological reflection of the landscape there is.”

Meanwhile, too many people and too much concrete have encroached on watersheds, impeding stream flow and diverting water for drinking and agricultural that salmon need to migrate. About 90 percent of the steelhead south of Canada are gone, and in the coastal ranges of Southern California, steelhead hang on in fragmented sections of their habitat.

In late spring, volunteers and government biologists patrol the rivers and tributaries of Southern California, looking for signs of steelhead trout lurking in the deeper recesses. Vestiges of the once-robust population can be occasionally found in several of the short creeks and rivers of Southern California

Since the fish definitely are in the Ventura River — “There’s still 50 steelhead that go up that polluted river,” Chouinard says in one of his ads American Express videos (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N24pdy-ONTk&noredirect=1) — numerous calls have been made to demolish the Matilija Dam. Advocates contend that restoring the natural flow of the Ventura River would not only help the steelhead, but would replenish sand on eroding local beaches. “The dam is a poster child for dam removal,” says Jenkin.


In 1998, environmentalists seemed to have gotten their wish when the dam was slated for decommissioning. Feasibility plans for that have moved along in fits and starts ever since, and building a consensus on how to proceed has proven messy. For now, “it’s all about the sediment,” Jenkin says. In 2010, efforts stalled over disputes over the cost-effectiveness and environmental impacts of moving fine silt from behind the defunct dam. The current fix calls for notching the dam down to the current sediment level, digging a channel meant to resemble the contours of a natural streambed, and banking the excess sediment on the sides of the river, where it would remain capped with vegetation.

Trimming the dam, rather than removing it and its 2 million yards of silt, is expected to save $20 million to $30 million of an estimated $140 million in project costs. “Anything we can do to bring costs down will increase the likelihood of bringing the dam down,” said Jeff Pratthead of the Ventura County Public Works Department.

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Paradoxically, efforts to mend steelhead trout habitats require the same skill set as dam building.

“Contractors involved in the heavy-construction side of things are beginning to take this on as part of their business. Good heavy-equipment operators who’re committed to being careful can transfer those skills,” says Cassandra Moseley, co-author of a University of Oregon study on forest and watershed restoration.

Plus, these are those vaunted “green jobs” that, as an added bonus, typically create jobs in occupations most affected by the collapse of the housing market. According to the study, watershed restoration work results in 16 to 24 jobs per $1 million spent. The research also found an average of $ 2.10 to $2.40 in additional money was generated as it cycled through Oregon’s economy.

A similar study conducted in California concluded that public funds dedicated to watershed restoration went even farther than that. In 2000, a pilot program administered by the California Department of Conservation, whose mission is to promote sustainable water management practices, issued $2 million in grants, enabling districts to hire 30 watershed coordinators statewide. The 30 coordinators were then able to generate more than $9 in grant money for every program dollar they spent.

In 2011, the department allocated $9.1 million to 41 nonprofits and local agencies in order to protect watersheds throughout California, including the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy in Ventura County.

Often, these projects can be tied to preserving open space and improving public health and safety, many stemming from concerns over water quality issues. “This fish’s habitat requirements dovetail tightly with a lot of other regulatory programs affecting other species, including our own,” Capelli says.

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The notion that salmon should pass unhindered is hardly new. In 1842, members of Britain’s Parliament codified the “King’s Gap,” an ancient custom dating back to the 14th century that required landowners to notch weirs (a dam meant to divert the flow of water), allowing salmon to migrate. The act required that all new weir construction left a gap “equivalent to one tenth of the river at its deepest part, at the discretion of the commissioners.”

Whether proscriptions meant for verdant England can work in flash-flood-prone Southern California is an open question. But projects strikingly similar in intent are unfolding in Santa Barbara (the home of Miller-McCune), where fish and city-dwellers are being asked to coexist.

This year, the city broke ground on a two-stage pilot project to improve steelhead habitat near downtown, gouging a deep slot in the concrete-lined Lower Mission Creek flood channel. This gouge is designed to slow water flowing downstream, mimicking the eddies of a purely natural stream. The idea is to allow steelhead to rest in calmer, deeper water before migrating to the upper reaches of the watershed, “creating a highway for steelhead,” says Brian Trautwien,  an environmental analyst for the Environmental Defense Council, a local advocacy group.

“It really is a case of weighing the pluses and the minuses. It’s nice when you do have consensus on a project that it’s a good expenditure of money and positive for the environment too,” says George Cooke, a contractor for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, who was among those who “notched” the decommissioned Sawpit Dam in 1994 to create a waterfall and improve earthquake safety.

Although far from a boom, such projects seem to be providing incentives to conserve and to build, giving environmentalists and construction workers something to cheer about.

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