It’s a classic environmental battle. All groups involved agree that tearing down the Matilija Dam is vital to restoring the endangered Ventura River, as well as restoring the natural ecosystem.

‘But the issue of where to dispose of the 2 million cubic yards of fine sediment trapped behind the dam has continued to delay a decade-long project.

In what could be a last-ditch effort to derive a plan, various federal, state, local and environmental organizations have retained a facilitator to manage the problem of solving the fine sediment disposal.

“They decided it would benefit to have more structured dialogue,” said Mary Selkirk, a senior mediator for Center for Collaborative Policy in Sacramento, who is heading the facilitating process.

For the next month, Selkirk will be interviewing major stakeholders involved in the Matilija Dam Ecosystem Restoration Project. She hopes to facilitate a resolution by the end of the year.

“Everybody wants the restoration project to proceed and for the dam to come down,” said Selkirk. “But there have been really thorny issues with sediment disposal — complicated and expensive.”

Recently Rep. Lois Capps (D-Ventura County) requested $1 million to be appropriated in the next fiscal year for the design phase of the project through the Senate Appropriations Bill. Senators Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein also requested $100,000 total, according to Jeff Pratt, Ventura County public works director.

But Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, doesn’t need a facilitator. He recently cast the Matilija Dam into the national spotlight when he appeared in an American Express commercial broadcast to 41 million viewers during the 2010 Academy Awards in March.

He stood, indignant, in front of the dam and proclaimed, “I’m a dam buster.” And when Chouinard speaks, people listen.

“Notching it down bit by bit, year after year,” said Chouinard. “That’s what I think is the solution.”

Chouinard said that by incrementally notching down the dam, the release of sediments would not pose a biological threat, and Mother Nature would be able to find a way to regulate; she always does.

“We need the sediment,” said Chouinard. “We want a lot of that sand to be in the river and flush out to the coast to restore the beaches.”

Also, the release of sediment would begin to encourage a revitalization of the endangered southern steelhead trout. Prior to the construction of the dam, the Ventura River had one of the largest runs of steelhead in southern California.

But with the dam blocking the fish from swimming upstream from the ocean, only a few dozen now inhabit the Ventura River.

“There is a Class A habitat above the dam, and we need to give them that passage,” said Nica Knite, Southern California regional manager for Cal Trout, a California conservation group. “Because of the adaptive nature of the fish, they respond to environmental cues. Once sediment starts rushing to the ocean, they know it.”

The notching down of the dam, despite its perceived simplicity, is not one of the primary methods being considered in the restoration project. Stakeholders believe it may be time to revisit the idea.

 “[Notching down the dam] always seemed to be the logical approach,” said Paul Jenkin, Matilija Coalition coordinator. “It was something looked at in the feasibility study, but the main issue with the removal is the Casitas Water District downstream.”

The water district has to remain cautious about sediment disposal for the sanctity of a water supply that supports nearly 70,000 people in western Ventura County.

“Casitas has made it clear that we are certainly willing to take part in the facilitation meeting and support the removal of the dam,” said Russ Baggerly, a Casitas board member. “But the devil is in the details.”

Though it is unclear how much money could be saved in the notching option, project managers assured that it would be much less expensive than the other disposal options. The money saved could lead to further research and development of a high-flow bypass and desilting basin to protect the water supply.

“There were groups of biologists that thought this could work, but notches had to be done at large, discreet intervals. Years and years, possibly decades,” said Pratt. “Just that talk of the long intervals in between caused the NGOs (non-government groups) to be not supportive of the idea.”

Back in 2004, stakeholders involved in the project applauded a feasibility study completed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and agreed on a sediment removal program with more control to take out fines — silt and clay built up against the dam — mechanically, much like a traditional construction project with start and finish dates.

There are 6 million cubic yards of sediment trapped behind the dam, two million of which are fines that threaten the water supply. The plan was to slurry the 2 million cubic feet of fines to a downstream disposal area along Baldwin Road, near the Highway 150 bridge. There, the fines would sit until they gradually washed downstream to the ocean.

The total project cost, authorized by Congress in 2007, was $144.5 million. But the Corps underestimated the expense of building and operating the slurry pipeline to the Baldwin Road site.

It now estimates the slurry pipeline would cost an additional $40 million.

“We made the best estimate we could during the feasibility,” said Pratt.

But Chouinard, who says he has been involved with the removal of 10 dams, is no longer surprised by the delay from government organizations.

“Dams cost a lot of money to take out, and right now there is not much money to do things like that,” said Chouinard, “so they’re just stalling.”

Pratt remains optimistic that the project still has credence in D.C.

“We were in the front of the line in that great soup kitchen in the east as far as dam removal projects goes,” said Pratt. “Now people are catching up and moving in front . …but we still have our hands out in Washington.”

To date, federal contributions to the project have totaled $5.5 million compared to the $18.4 million of combined state and local funding.

Project scientists predict that the dam’s reservoir will fill in completely by 2020 if the dam is not removed.

Chouinard is aware of this and says that those involved in the project have long been aware of the many harmful consequences in not removing the dam, but continue studying the issue instead of acting.

“It gets in the hands of scientists and, often, they’re the problem. Lots of studying . . . but not acting. Science without activism is dead science,” said Chouinard.

When the slurry pipeline to the Baldwin Road site was deemed too expensive, engineers proposed the idea of pumping the silt downriver to a Meiners Oaks property owned by the Church of the Living Christ, but were met with tremendous resistance from residents and land owners.

To avoid the burden on neighbors and the cost of the slurry pipeline, engineers proposed permanently stabilizing the sediments upstream from the dam by cementing the sediments underground.

The total area affected by the new proposal would be 37 acres, versus 71.5 acres for the Baldwin Road site.
But environmental agencies were quick to pounce on this idea, saying it resembled a landfill, or even a sideways dam.
Additionally, this plan would create a permanent fixture. The original goal of the restoration approach is to ensure that there are no permanent features on the landscape.

Though Chouinard has not been involved in the technical discussions or meetings about the sediment disposal issue, his interest and advocacy raise the profile and importance of the project.

During a recent trip to Washington, D.C., Jenkin said the Chouinard commercial came up repeatedly, and the Matilija dam drew an incredible amount of national interest.

“The publicity is helpful, but at the same time we have some serious technical and political issues to work through,” said Jenkin.   

shane@vcreporter.com