Debate: What to do with Searsville Dam

February 9, 2012 8:00:13 PM PST
In the hills above Stanford, the university has a multi-million dollar headache.

The Searsville Dam may look pretty, but it has outlived its usefulness. Critics want it removed, but it is not nearly that simple. Beware the appearance of peace and tranquility on the still waters of Searsville Dam above the Stanford Campus. In the shallows beneath, a controversy runs deep.

Matt Stoecker says, "Searsville is a ticking time bomb."

Philippe Cohen says, "Stanford's got a challenge."

Beyond that, there is not a lot of agreement between Dr. Philippe Cohen and his number one critic Matt Stoecker. Stoecker is a stream biologist who grew up in those hills and he views the lake, the dam, and the biological preserve as a blight on the environment.

"I mean, it's called the Jasper Ridge Biological Reserve. Right now, they're preserving an artificial reservoir that damages the watershed and harbors bullfrogs and non-native fish," he says.

"When I first arrived here, my immediate reaction was yeah, remove the dam. And as I learned more, I realized it wasn't that simple," Cohen says.

Searsville Dam dates all the way back to 1892. It was originally built to supply drinking water to the city of San Francisco. There was just one problem with that. The water turned out to be undrinkable. As old pictures show, for 80 years, the lake served as a source of family fun and recreation. It has also irrigated much of the Stanford golf course campus. It still does.

And through all those years, the biological preserve has served as a research center. In the 1970s, Stanford closed it to the public because too many people wandered through and ruined too many experiments. For instance, Dr. Chris Field, has added heat and carbon dioxide to patches of grass to simulate climate change. "This is California in 2075," he says describing the project. "16 different global change versions of what California might look like toward the end of the 21st century." It is a long-term experiment, one that might conceivably suffer should Stanford knock down the aging dam and the lake, filled now with 90 percent silt.

"Even doing nothing changes everything. If you do nothing, the lake fills in," Cohen says. The larger issue is the fact that in the United States alone, there are some 40,000 dams on the brink of obsolescence. The question is how to get rid of them.

Stoecker says, "It's old technology." If he had his way, Stanford would demolish Searsville tomorrow, allowing salmon and steelhead to migrate up from San Francisco Bay as they did until the dam blocked them. When asked what made him think he could bring one of the old creeks back to life, Stoecker responded, "Because there are so many examples, if you look at dams that have recently come out, they all show that rivers and creeks rebound really well if you give them a chance." He wants the lake restored to wetlands and original conditions.

"First of all, you have to find know what conditions were like then and secondly, you have to figure out whether conditions can be like that again," Cohen says. "And, I don't think that's obvious and transparent."

Now, add questions of flooding, endangered species, water resources, and millions of dollars in cost and that is why Stanford has embarked on a two-year study about what to do.

Stocker says, "Stanford needs to get Searsville dam into environmental compliance with state and federal laws, and the best way to do that is to remove it."

Cohen contends, "The one option that isn't available to us, is the status quo."

So much for tranquility at Searsville Dam.


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