Opinion: Stanford’s Searsville Dam must be removed

Matthew Fogarty, Author

As crews break ground to remove the San Clemente Dam on the Carmel River, Palo Altans watch with envy as a dam in our own community continues to threaten endangered wildlife.

Dam removal has become one of the hottest controversies around the United States, especially on the West Coast, where there is a constant battle between farmers and environmentalists over who gets the majority of the water. In our own community, there is a dam that has lost its purpose. I ask Palo Alto to prove its environmentally friendly reputation by urging Stanford University to remove its Searsville Dam.

Stanford should remove the dam because it is hurting the watershed and hampering one of the last remaining steelhead runs in the San Francisco Bay Area. Steelhead, a migratory fish species related to salmon, make their way from the ocean and bay back up streams and tributaries during the winter and spring to lay eggs where they were born. When water flow below Searsville Dam comes to a halt, these fish become stuck in isolated pools, where they eventually suffocate to death.

According to Stanford’s website, the dam, built in 1892 and located above Palo Alto, is still a source of non potable water that is used for watering plants, grass, and the Stanford Golf Course on campus.

However, the biological cost of the operation of this damn is much more significant than the economic cost of using a different source for only 20 percent of Stanford’s potable water. In recent years, as Palo Alto has received below-average annual precipitation, there have been times when San Fransisquito Creek dries out completely. Why? Partially because there simply isn’t enough rain, but also because Stanford is diverting water flow for their own benefit.

Some might think that the dry spells aren’t a big deal, but for one of the last remaining wild steelhead runs in the Bay Area, they certainly are. The encouraging thing about this situation is that Stanford can do something great for the watershed by completing one task: removing the dam and responsibly sourcing the small amount of water diverted at Searsville Dam from an existing damless diversion downstream. As members of the Palo Alto and Stanford community we like to boast about our environmental friendliness, but we are contradicting ourselves by allowing the dam to continually hurt the environment when easily implemented and more reliable options are available.

Removal can only benefit the ecosystem. Even larger dam removal efforts across the nation have produced marvelous results. Perhaps the greatest example of this took place on the Elwha River in Washington, where the removal of a large dam in 2012 restored access to traditional salmon breeding grounds and helped the salmon return dramatically.  This years Elwha salmon run was one of the biggest on record and over 70 percent of the returning salmon observed by scientists were spawning upstream of the former dam site. Another local example is the passing of legislation to remove the San Clemente Dam on the Carmel River this coming year to restore steelhead populations.

As dam removal becomes more and more common and the benefits become more realized, Palo Alto citizens should be a part of the change as we have the chance to save a species that has been prominent for thousands of years.  Dam owners are taking down hazardous and replaceable dams to reduce their liability and comply with modern environmental regulations.

Many groups, like Beyond Searsville Dam and American Rivers, believe that Stanford is in violation of the Endangered Species Act by maintaining a barrier to endangered wildlife and dewatering the creek. Two other groups are currently suing Stanford over Searsville Dam and the federal government has opened an investigation against the University.

Although Stanford has claimed it is performing an investigation regarding the health of the watershed and identifying alternatives for the dam, it is costing precious time. As members of the Palo Alto community we should push for Stanford to remove Searsville Dam now to restore a healthy population of steelhead and protect one of our last remaining natural creeks, and do it in a way that safeguards our communities.

To find out more and help contribute to the cause, visit beyondsearsvilledam.com and write an open letter to Stanford University’s president, John Hennesey.