Matilija Dam, on the Ventura River, was constructed in 1948 and is completely ineffective today. Full of silt and sediment, it does nothing for flood control or water supply and it completely blocks Southern steelhead passage. Efforts to remove Matilija Dam started in the mid-1990’s. But, like many other environmental projects, the removal of the Matilija Dam on the Ventura River has been impacted by the world’s economic crisis.
A full spectrum of community stakeholders and agencies came together and by 2007, they had developed a preferred preliminary design, a budget (approximately $145 million), and a schedule. At that time, Congressional approval for the project was obtained.
The project design included: the removal of the Matilija Dam structure, the disposal of the 6 million cubic yards of sediment currently sequestered behind the dam, and the complete habitat restoration of the river canyon. Since 2007, however, the U.S. budget crisis has made it impossible to appropriate funds for progress on the Matilija Project.
In the face of bleak funding prospects, project leads (County of Ventura Watershed Protection District and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) went “off the reservation” and developed a modified, potentially less expensive project design that failed to meet the ecological restoration goals of the project. Instead, their plan would permanently store as much as 2.5 million cubic yards of the fine sediment in the river canyon itself, covering the existing riparian habitat (which includes native oaks, springs, and other critical habitat values) and constraining the river into an unnaturally inhibited channel.
CalTrout worked closely with Matilija Coalition Director, Paul Jenkin, to stop this “imposter project” and remind the agencies of the original intent of these efforts: 1.) to restore the Ventura River and the Matilija Canyon area for the benefit of Southern California steelhead (and other native species and habitat) by providing fish passage and habitat, 2.) to restore the natural processes that allow the river to carry and deposit the sediments that naturally replenish our Ventura beaches.
Over the course of a year and many meetings, CalTrout and Paul Jenkin successfully persuaded with stakeholders and agencies to reaffirm the eco-restoration project goals, and to consider and refine adjustments to the original 2007 “approved project.” These changes could potentially save money, prevent additional sediment accumulation behind the dam prior to its removal, and allow some forward motion to begin, even with the meager economic outlook.
Accordingly, the Matilija Dam Removal Project appears to be “back on the rails.” Plans to begin notching the dam to current sediment levels are being developed. And adjustments to the larger project are being explored – including non-habitat impact alternative storage areas for the sediment.
Progress on this work is constrained by funding. But the liability of the Matilija Dam and the threat of increase removal costs in the future if additional sediment accumulates are motivating continued efforts by agencies and stakeholders. Ventura County is moving ahead with the design and permitting for dam notching, and CalTrout will continue to work closely with the Matilija Coalition to assure that progress continues to be made.