Another Look at Dam Removal: Searsville Dam
As part of our River Restoration Challenges Series this month, today I am talking about overcoming obstacles in order to remove the Searsville Dam on San Francisquito Creek in California.
Over the last 10 years, a coalition of environmental groups, including American Rivers, has asked Stanford University to remove Searsville Dam, which is located on their campus. This obsolete dam blocks access to 20 miles of habitat for one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s last wild steelhead runs. We are now on the cusp of a decision. By the end of 2014, a Stanford steering committee that has been studying potential alternatives to the dam will decide whether to remove the dam entirely, keep the dam in place and dredge the silted-in reservoir, or pursue some other dam modification approach. This decision will have a major impact on the entire watershed and may significantly influence the viability of threatened steelhead in the South Bay.
As we approach this critical decision point with Searsville Dam, it is a great time to reflect on how a potential dam removal project gets to this important crossroads. What work lays the foundation for this type of decision, and what factors are typically the biggest considerations?
For Searsville Dam, like the vast majority of our dam removal projects, we find that collaboration with the dam owner is usually the best approach. Once landowners recognize the liability risk they face by keeping an aging dam in place, and have a rough assessment of their costs to restore and maintain the dam, they see dam removal as a cost-effective, permanent solution to their problems.
When a dam impacts species protected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA), such as California Coastal Steelhead in the case of Searsville Dam, regulatory compliance may also factor into the dam owner’s calculus. Although we are working collaboratively with Stanford University to find a solution to the dam’s significant environmental impacts, other groups have filed an ESA lawsuit that is influencing the university’s thinking about the dam.
Once the landowner has determined that a problem exists and a solution is necessary, it will often do a full evaluation of its options. Starting last year, Stanford launched a formal alternatives study to analyze possible solutions for Searsville Dam. An Advisory Group comprised of stakeholders, including American Rivers and the coalition Beyond Searsville Dam, was assembled to provide input to the University throughout the study.
Stanford’s Searsville Dam Alternatives Study is now in its final phase of its alternatives analysis, and the university’s steering committee will make a recommendation for the future of Searsville Dam in the next six months. Because of the extreme consequences that decision will have on the future of San Francisquito Creek, American Rivers has named San Francisquito Creek one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers® in 2014.
Many older dams fit the profile of a good dam removal candidate: expensive to maintain safely, costly to mitigate harm to the environment, and no longer serves a meaningful purpose. In almost all of these cases, dam removal is the best option for the river, the land owner, and the surrounding community. Because public safety is paramount for American Rivers, dam removal is only an option if it can be done without increasing flood risk to local communities. As long as that is the case with Searsville, we count on Stanford to make the right decision and remove their obsolete dam to restore this unique and critically important creek.