about everyone who knows about Matilija Dam on Matilija Creek in
the Ventura River watershed agrees that it should be taken down.
Now a project is moving forward that promises to make it happen.
A highly unusual degree of consensus has been reached on how to dismantle
the massive concrete structure 15.6 miles upstream from Surfer's
Point. A feasibility study has been done; federal and state environmental
documents have been completed without challenges; the final design
process has begun. In October 2005, the Ocean Protection Council
committed $2 million for pre-engineering and design.
"A lot of environmental issues seem abstract--wetlands, for instance,"
said Paul Jenkin, coordinator of the Matilija Coalition, an alliance
of community groups, businesses, and individuals committed to restoring
the river system, starting with deconstruction of the dam. "But
people get excited about a huge piece of concrete blocking the
river, which could be removed."
In 1947, when the Ventura County Watershed Protection District
(then the Flood Control District) built the dam at a favorite fishing
spot on Matilija Creek, just above the point where it joins with
North Fork Matilija to become the Ventura River, the builders knew
it would not be useful for long. Sue Hughes, legislative analyst
for the County, says a recently found memorandum from the District,
written in the late 1940s, makes that clear. "When they pencilled
it out--the cost of building the dam, the cost of supplying water--they
knew it would only be 34 to 36 years before it filled with sediment.
However, they concluded that the dam was the most cost-effective
way to provide water for agricultural and residential use."
Now it's been years since the dam lost its flood control function,
and its water storage capacity is barely worth mentioning. Designed
to store 7,000 acre-feet, it holds less than 500. Current estimates
show that its storage capacity will be zero by 2020. "Directly
behind the dam we have a 140-foot-deep hole filled with two million
cubic yards of mud," said Jenkin. "Stretching almost a mile upstream
of that, the dam has trapped another four million cubic yards of
sand, gravel, and cobble, sediment once destined to flow down the
river to the beach."
What Matilija Dam continues to do to this day, however, is to
kill life in the river, erode the riverbanks, and tear up the ocean
shore. The dam has choked off passage to steelhead trying to reach
their spawning grounds, and caused sediment-starved "hungry" water
to carry away the wide beach that was once at Surfer's Point. "I
grew up here. I have to tell you, the beaches here in the late
'60s had hundreds of yards of sand," said Hughes.
Without the cushion of sand to protect it, the shoreline was subjected
to such severe wave attacks that concrete barriers have been built
to keep a waterside trail and parking lot from washing away. The
dam may also be a potential safety hazard, because its concrete face
has cracked. Although it is inspected annually and has been declared
safe for the next 50 years, some people worry that an earthquake
or other extreme event could prove otherwise.