The Dam Nobody Wants Just Won’t Go Away

Ventura, Calif.—It’s a flawless sunny day in Ventura, California. In the coastal city, north of Los Angeles, surfers bob on boards watching the swells for the ideal wave. If you want a long ride, here at Surfers’ Point, where the Ventura River meets the ocean, is the place you want to be. It’s a classic California point break that creates waves surfers gravitate to up and the down the coast.

It’s a favorite spot for Paul Jenkin, who’s been surfing this break for over 30 years. But today he’s not here waiting for the perfect wave; he’s waiting for a better beach—or at least the beach that used to be here.

Jenkin is the campaign coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on the protection and enhancement of the world’s oceans, waves, and beaches. For 20 years he’s been working to restore the natural supply of sand and gravel to this cobbled beach that’s seen its parking lot and bike path crumble into the ocean. He says one of the concerns at Surfrider is that with sea level rise, recreational beaches are going to disappear. “We’re going to lose our surf spots and lose a place just to put a towel down on the sand.”

Rising sea levels along with coastal development are some of the threats to Surfers’ Point, but the real culprit is some 16 miles away in a mountain canyon far above the city—the Matilija Dam.

Matilija Dam

Matilija Dam was built in 1947, driven by farmers and ranchers in the nearby Ojai Valley, who wanted it for flood control and water supply. Peter Sheydeyi, deputy director of Ventura County Watershed Protection District, the agency that owns the dam, says Matilija originally had 7,000 acre-feet of storage. But over the last 70 years it has completely filled with sediment—some 8 million cubic yards of sand and gravel—enough to fill 800,000 dump trucks—that no longer flows to the beach.

Matilija Reservoir has filled with sediment, allowing grasses to grow on its surface. (Photo by Paul Jenkin)

Matilija Dam had bad juju right from the start. The Army Corps of Engineers warned the Ventura County Flood Control District not to build it, saying the surrounding steep landscape of coastal sage scrub and oak woodland was highly erodible and would fill the reservoir with sediment.

Then, during its construction, it was discovered the concrete used in the dam had a condition that would weaken over time. The original structure was 198 feet tall but was notched down in the 1960s and ’70s to 168 feet due to safety concerns. Those safety concerns continue to this day because this is California, where earthquakes are always a possibility. In 2018, Matilija Dam received a “poor” rating for seismic risk in a review by state’s Division of Safety of Dams (DSOD).

Lastly, before Matilija Dam was built, the Southern California steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss) would come upriver to spawn. But because the fish can no longer migrate to their historic freshwater habitats to reproduce to maintain or grow their populations, the trout has been listed as endangered. Sheydeyi, who’s managing the Matilija Dam Ecosystem Restoration Project for the county says if the dam were removed it’s believed that a good population of the fish would return to the upstream watershed.

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Given the numerous downsides—impeded fish migration, beach erosion, and seismic risk—not to mention that it provides no water supply—Matilija Dam has been slated for removal, and among the graffiti painted all around the dam is a dashed line with a giant pair of scissors suggesting, “cut here” to empty its contents. The artwork has become iconic in the movement to remove obsolete dams and was featured in the documentary DamNation.

Matilija Dam (Photo by J. Clifton)

But unleashing sediment that’s accrued for over 70 years is not something you can do without a lot of planning, studies—and money. In 2000, Jenkin formed the Matilija Coalition to bring together the many non-governmental organizations interested in removing the dam, such as CalTrout and Friends of the River, two statewide organizations that were focused on restoring native steelhead. The outdoor retailer Patagonia, which is headquartered along the Ventura River in the city, has been a huge backer of the effort. Also, the Open Rivers Fund (a program of Resources Legacy Fund with support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation that aids local community efforts to remove obsolete dams, modernize infrastructure, and restore rivers across the western United States) stepped in to help.

And now—20 years, several studies, and over $20 million later—they might finally have a solution. The current proposal is to drill two 12-foot holes at the base of the dam, and then, during a moderately sized rain event open them up to flush the fine sediments downriver. The county would then—potentially the following summer—dismantle the dam once the pressure load was released. Of the 8 million cubic yards in the reservoir it’s estimated that only 2 million cubic yards would move downstream. The rest would be stabilized in place and be restored with native vegetation that would become a permanent part of the landscape. Sheydeyi hopes that after the dam is gone the area will be a recreational destination with trails, which will allow people “to enjoy the cool waters during the late summer months at Matilija Creek.”

But before the flushing event happens however, improvements downstream would be needed. It’s estimated that the river would rise two to six feet in elevation once the dam is removed, so that will require two new bridges and two new levees—something that will likely take at least a decade and somewhere in the neighborhood of $150 million to complete. Then, they wait for rain, which given California’s recent drought cycles could be a while.

A Lesson for Other Dams

What ultimately happens at Matilija might be a lesson for the hundreds of other California dams, sitting on creeks and streams that drain to the ocean. A study done by Cope M. Willis and Gary B. Griggs at the University of California, Santa Cruz, found that statewide about 25 percent of sand that would have been delivered to the coast is now blocked by dams. In Southern California, where beaches are a huge part of the economy, it’s 50 percent.

All that trapped sediment also means reservoir capacity is shrinking. Toby Minear, a researcher at that Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado, Boulder, estimated in a 2009 paper that statewide, reservoirs have likely filled with 2.1 billion cubic meters of sediment, decreasing total reservoir capacity by 4.5 percent. About 200 reservoirs have likely lost more than half their initial capacity to sedimentation.

Climate Change

Surfers’ Point Bike Path, January 2019 (Photo by Paul Jenkin)

As the number of wildfires and extreme storms increase with climate change it will likely cause more sediment to move into reservoirs, further shrinking their capacity. Sediment transport in this fire-flood scenario is accelerated because burnt material is highly erodible and ready to be swept down hillsides with heavy rains. Sheydeyi says the 2017 Thomas Fire caused another influx of sediment and led to the growth bulrushes and grasses growing on the reservoir’s surface.

Phase 1 of the Managed Shoreline Retreat project at Surfers’ Point

The lack of sediment moving downriver combined with sea level rise will exacerbate problems already occurring along the coast such as flooding, cliff erosion, and threats to infrastructure. Beaches may seem static—that the sand just stays put—but it’s always in motion due to waves, wind, and tides. Winter waves have high energy that pulls sand offshore, making beaches narrower. In the summer, sand is carried back onto beaches, widening them again.

But this cycle only continues when there is a steady supply of sand. As sea levels rise a deficit of protective sand will expose cliffs and development to further erosion and flooding. Additionally, overbuilt shorelines mean that beaches lack the room to migrate inland to accommodate higher water. It’s in this context that, in 2011, a working group, including Surfrider, city planners, the California Coastal Conservancy, the State Coastal Commission, the Ventura County Fairgrounds, and others completed the first phase of what they call the first “managed shoreline retreat” project in the state of California, where infrastructure is moved back out of harm’s way in lieu of armoring the shore with seawalls and rock revetments.

In phase 1 of the Surfers’ Point Managed Shoreline Retreat a 70- to 100-foot-wide stretch of sand dunes was engineered, underneath which rests an 8-foot-thick layer of imported river cobble. On the surface native plants and driftwood anchor the dunes in place. The project has gained recognition for coastal management in response to climate change, has been featured in numerous case studies, and serves as a model of sustainable shoreline management in the era of rising seas, according to the California Coastal Conservancy.

Surfers’ Point Managed Shoreline Retreat (Photo by Frani Halperin/H2O Media, Ltd.)

An Epic Ride

If the various stakeholders involved in the Matilija Dam removal are able to raise the needed funds, the necessary infrastructure is completed, and a series of drenching storms hit the area—just how much sand would replenish the beach?

Jenkin says the initial assessment was that around 30 percent more sediment would come out of the river during each storm event, but they are currently completing studies to confirm that estimate. The fly in the ointment, he says, is that when the project was built they were predicting perhaps a foot-and-a-half of sea level rise by 2100. Now that could happen within the next decade or so. “Once we get four to five feet of sea level rise the whole California coast is going to dramatically change,” he says, adding that the dunes they’re constructing “are perhaps just buying time.”

Until then, he’s looking forward to a different experience at Surfers’ Point once the dam is removed, noting aerial photos taken back in the 1960s show that after big storm events a large sandbar forms at the river’s mouth. So, he says brightly, “we would anticipate—hopefully—a couple of epic days out here.”

This is the second story in H2O Radio’s series about sedimentation. Listen to the first story: “Damned from the Start—Many U.S. Reservoirs Could Be Rendered Useless—And That Was Part of the Plan”

Ranchers Want Dams to Protect Against Drought, But Could They Worsen Climate Change?

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is Part 2 of a three-part series.

BIG PINEY, Wyo. – It’s late May in Wyoming. Snow fell the night before, and more is on the way. That’s why it’s good that rancher Chad Espenscheid is behind the wheel. The roads are sloppy and Middle Piney Creek is running high.

All this water is nerve-wracking for ranchers in western Wyoming, who depend on irrigation to feed their livestock.

“It’s been a cold, long winter,” Espenscheid said. “The cows and calves are really needing some sunshine about now. We got quite a bit of sickness going on around the (Green River) Valley.”

Rancher and Water Engineer Chad Espenscheid stands at an overlook of his property on Middle Piney Creek as a snowstorm brews behind him. (Melodie Edwards/Wyoming Public Radio)

That sickness could mean he’ll lose a lot of newborn calves.

Many aspects of ranching are stressful, and one of the big ones is water. That’s why Espenscheid is pleased the state is fixing the Middle Piney Dam, which has fallen into disrepair where the creek flows into the Green River, a major tributary of the Colorado River.

“It would give Middle Piney Creek a little more of a steady flow instead of it all coming out in one shot and everybody really having to hustle around and capture it all at one time,” he said, adding that he could use that water to irrigate his hayfields to feed those calves.

Not only is Espenscheid a rancher, he’s also a water engineer who participates in an experimental conservation program that pays ranchers to only irrigate when they have to. So in late summer, after he’s hayed his fields, he turns off the spigot. But fixing Middle Piney Dam will store a modest 4,200 acre-feet of water that would have wound up in the Colorado, Espenscheid said.

He’s not sure what to think about how that will affect Lower Basin states that also rely on the Colorado River.

“I don’t know, I’m just Wyoming through and true, so I’m kind of worried about Wyoming, I guess, to be honest,” Espenscheid said. “So I think we’ve got to take care of our own sustainability and make sure we have opportunities for growth.”

It’s not just the Middle Piney Reservoir that’s being expanded, though. Jason Mead with Wyoming’s Water Development Office adds up the acre-feet of water storage the state wants to build on the Green River watershed.

“Four thousand for Middle Piney, 10,000 for West Fork; that’s 14,000,” Mead said. “Another 8 (thousand) at New Fork, so that’s 22,000, another 9 (thousand) between Meek’s Cabin, that’s 31,000.”

All told, he figures Wyoming could add about 50,000 acre-feet with five new or expanded reservoirs, including Big Sandy, West Fork, Meek’s Cabin and Stateline. And then there are the 80,000 acre-feet that the Fontanelle Reservoir on the Green River eventually could add, once drought lowers the water level enough to finish the foundation.

Related story

On stressed Colorado River, states test how many more diversions watershed can bear

At 130,000 acre-feet total, that would be enough water to supply a city of a million people – but Wyoming’s entire population is half that.

“Every one of these projects we’re talking about,” Mead said, “really are for irrigation shortages and trying to handle the drought situations that everybody has faced over the years and trying to take water when we have good years and carry it over into years that are drier,” Mead said.

And those drier years are expected to worsen. Long-range forecasts predict heavy snowpacks will melt and flood earlier and earlier, leaving ranchers with less water in the summer.

“If we can’t keep those businesses afloat, eventually they’re going to have to sell,” Mead said. “Do they get developed in the future? We don’t know, but if we keep them in ranching, we know we’re going to maintain that open space.”

Although more dams could help ranchers survive coming droughts, some scientists say building more dams, particularly those meant to control flooding, might actually worsen climate change.

“They want the water drained out so in the event of a flood they have storage capacity,” University of Wyoming soil scientist Jay Norton said. “That can cause very low flows downstream that dry up those floodplain wetlands,” which store huge amounts of organic carbon.

“There’s estimates that if we could raise soil organic carbon by about 0.4 percent per year, that we would completely offset human-derived emissions of greenhouse gases,” Norton said.

Think of all the plants along streams in the otherwise arid Mountain West. Wetlands on undammed waterways can cover as little as 2% of the landscape but hold 15% to 30% of the carbon. But if reservoirs hold all the water, those riparian areas will dry up and lose the ability to hold carbon.

According to Norton, however, more dams in the Upper Basin – if managed correctly – could create more wetlands and store more carbon.

“Conceivably, it could have a positive effect on downstream wetlands, if water tables are maintained relatively high,” he said. “Irrigation itself expands wetlands.”

Unfortunately, that’s not the only effect dams have on climate. One study shows that decomposing organic matter behind dams as water levels drop can produce large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that’s even more potent than carbon dioxide.

But Espenscheid, the rancher and water engineer, said the positives of building dams outweigh the negatives.

“Most ranchers, they’re ranchers because they love their ranch and they love the outdoors and they love the wildlife and everything about it,” he said. “So if you can find a win-win solution, then everybody’s happy.”

The question is: With all the Upper Basin states investing in more dams, what will the cumulative effect be?

This story is part of “The Final Straw,” a series produced by the Colorado River Reporting Project at KUNC, KUER and Wyoming Public Radio.

As Relicensing Looms, Aging Dams Face a Reckoning

POTTER VALLEY, Calif. – More than a century ago, the people of Mendocino County in California needed electricity to fit into the industrialized world. So engineers generated power by building two dams and reconfiguring two rivers. For decades thereafter, people fashioned steadily improving lives around the new landscapes. At the same time, beset by environmental insults, the annual runs of salmonids in the Eel River withered.

Inevitably, priorities changed. As building the dams and creating the 9.2-megawatt Potter Valley project solved the need for electricity, a new need developed: irrigation. Tens of thousands of acre-feet of Eel River water were diverted to supply the power station at the headwaters of the Russian River’s East Branch. Then it flowed on, supplying cities and farmers and nurturing Mendocino and Sonoma County’s expanding agriculture – once pears and hops, now dominated by wine grapes.

An aerial view of the Cape Horn Dam on the Eel River. (Photo by Rob Badger)

The current need: repair the harm caused by the dams. That will cost so many tens of millions of dollars that the project’s owner, Pacific Gas & Electric – already losing money on it – is cutting its losses. It will not seek a new federal license.

This decision mimics PG&E’s recent moves away from other small hydroelectric projects, like the 12-megawatt Narrows project on the Yuba River in Nevada County, which PG&E sold last year to a local water agency. It also echoes decisions by the northwestern utility PacifiCorp, which, at a cost of $37 million, breached its 14.7 megawatt Condit Dam on the White Salmon River in Washington.

The Potter Valley Project: More Than Just a Dam

Built starting in 1905 by the Eel River Power and Irrigation Company, the Potter Valley Project grew over time to comprise two dams on the Eel River and two reservoirs: Lake Van Arsdale and Lake Pillsbury. The project eventually served two purposes: to generate power from Eel River water diverted to a powerhouse in Potter Valley, and to bring irrigation water to the Russian River watershed. This water served expanding agricultural areas in Mendocino and Sonoma Counties, including many new vineyards. Since the Russian River watershed is susceptible to flooding, the Army Corps of Engineers completed the Coyote Valley dam in 1958 for flood control. It created Lake Mendocino and provided a new source of both irrigation water and opportunities for recreation. (Graphic by Geoff McGhee/Bill Lane Center for the American West)

Choices Ahead for Owners of Small Hydroelectric Projects Across the West

Dam by dam, owners of smaller hydroelectric projects around the West look at them with a cold eye as relicensing looms. Created with optimism a century ago, dams are now seen as fish-killers and river-distorters. New energy sources are getting cheaper. After decades of operation, owners approach relicensing knowing that, if they are to continue generating a single watt of electricity, they must fix the problems.

Tens of millions of dollars are often at stake. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission licenses hydroelectric projects for up to 50 years, but sometimes just one year at a time to ensure problems are resolved. Limited revenue from electricity may not justify expensive remediation. Before it was sold off, a financial analysis of the Narrows project showed costs would have outweighed profits by more than $12 million over the first five years.

Depending on how it finally turns out, the narrative of the Potter Valley project could be a cautionary tale for other dam owners whose stakeholders are at odds. Or it could be a roadmap to reconciling competing interests. Whatever the lesson, the project is part of a larger transformation in how people understand debts owed to the environment. And how they are repaid. “[The Potter Valley project] is a subset of a much larger body of problems,” said Scott Greacen, conservation director at Friends of the Eel River, a conservation organization that is seeking to restore natural streamflows. Over the decades, “we took a lot of capital out of natural systems. Now the bills are coming due.”

Fighting climate change is another urgent need. One way is by creating carbon-free electricity – what dams do. The historian Heather Lee Miller, a staffer at Historical Research Associates in Washington, believes that if all governments classify small hydroelectric projects’ energy as renewable, subsidies could change the financial picture.

“Certainly some of the dams are in terrible places,” she said. Others, like PacifiCorp’s 1.1-megawatt project at Wallowa Falls in Oregon, are being relicensed. “There’s a backlog of dams that aren’t in the right spot,” she said, but added that, as the climate changes, it would be wrong to think small hydro-electric projects have no future.

What is the difference between projects like Wallowa Falls being relicensed and those, like Potter Valley, being abandoned by big electric companies? Economics are central. Relicensing the Potter Valley project promised to be daunting even before PG&E, facing hundreds of millions of dollars of wildfire liabilities, declared bankruptcy. “It now looks like PG&E’s overall incentive structure has shifted,” Greacen said. “They have given up.”

Who Decides the Future? A Stakeholder Group Struggles to Find Compromise

The federal government determines the terms of PG&E’s exit. FERC will solicit interest from others to run it. If no one comes forward, it will order PG&E to develop a decommissioning plan that may or may not include removing facilities.

PG&E’s finances are private, but the economic analysis done for the Narrows project on the Yuba River offers guidance.

Jeff Bodington of San Francisco, the financial analyst who did it, said, “these projects made sense at the time they were built and perhaps for decades thereafter. Many still make sense.” But “some may make sense day in and day out, but when a license expires, relicensing can be very costly. A small project cannot absorb big relicensing costs. For each relicensing, he said, “these questions get asked. Are there fish impacts? Recreational impacts? Other impacts?”

The Potter Valley project had many impacts. The region’s congressman, Jared Huffman, created a working group of all stakeholders — water agencies, local and county governments, tribes, federal and state wildlife specialists and environmental groups – to hash out what the project should become and what happens to the dams.

Asked if the Potter Valley project is an electrical project or a water distribution project, Congressman Jared Huffman said simply. “Yes.” He added, “The question is, whether it can be both of those things and a fish recovery project.”

Dams a Mortal Threat to Fish Runs, Scientific and Regulatory Consensus Holds

In the past two decades, the federal government agreed with scientists that salmon and steelhead runs in the Eel River are threatened. A 2010 report from the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis, concluded, “coho salmon, Chinook salmon and steelhead are on a trajectory to extinction in the Eel River basin.”

The culprits listed in that report include early 20th-century commercial fishing and mechanized logging whose clear-cuts on the hillsides caused erosion that silted up the river. Floods in 1955 and 1964 added silt and changed the river’s course. All that hampered fish passage, but not as much as Scott Dam, built in 1922. It blocks dozens of miles of spawning areas. The report said, “the loss of salmonid habitat upstream of Scott Dam means there are fewer areas to serve as refuges for salmonid and steelhead… during environmentally unfriendly periods such as extended droughts.”

The Potter Valley Project takes water from the Eel River, which flows north, and pumps it into the Russian River, which flows south towards wine country. (Graphic by Geoff McGhee/Bill Lane Center for the American West)

Eel River Diversions Were Slashed in 2006… But Then Russian River Fish Suffered

In 2004, the Federal Energy Regulatory commission ordered the diversions cut back from what was then 160,000 acre-feet annually. Now they average 72,000 acre-feet. These inter-basin diversions help fish in the Russian River. The Eel River water flows through a mile-long tunnel to generate electricity at a powerhouse on the banks of the East Fork of the Russian River. The water not used by the Potter Valley Irrigation District and other local diverters ends up behind the Coyote Valley dam in Lake Mendocino and is released periodically into the Russian River.

The state Water Resources Control Board requires the Sonoma County Water Agency to keep minimum stream flows on the Russian River to maintain fish spawning and migration and support recreation. The Eel River water transfers help them do that, according to Don Seymour, a principal engineer at the Sonoma County Water Agency.

The agency has had difficulty meeting its minimum instream flow requirements while not depleting Lake Mendocino. It won’t be easy to serve its urban, industrial and agricultural customers and help its endangered fish recover if there is less water in Lake Mendocino.

Scott Dam on the Eel River, above, completely blocks salmonid migration. A fish ladder could cost $55 to $93 million, and might not work. (Photo by Rob Badger)

Help for Spawning Fish Could Cost Tens of Millions of Dollars – or Hundreds

Joshua Fuller, the National Marine Fisheries Service’s expert on salmonid runs in the Eel River, agrees that the Russian River fish do benefit from the Eel River water — but says access to the upper Eel River is crucial for reviving its salmonids.

Different strategies give fish access to spawning grounds. These include dam removal, a fish ladder, or hauling fish in trucks. Fuller heads one of two working groups in Congressman Huffman’s ad hoc committee weighing Potter Valley’s future. His group on fish passage is about to pick the two best of available solutions.

Good fish ladders are expensive. In August, the Lost Coast Outpost reported that a 2017 engineering report prepared for PG&E “found that constructing a functional fish ladder at Scott Dam would likely cost between $55 million and $93 million.” It would be “challenging to build, complicated to operate, very costly, and would have uncertain effectiveness.” Removing Scott Dam would be at least as expensive. Increasing the size of Coyote Valley dam, which holds back the Russian River, could cost $300 million.

Where could the money come from? As Congressman Huffman said, “If you look around at any stakeholder in either basin, none of them has the capacity to solve this problem and pay for it on their own. The only way to do this is to come together and unlock state and federal money.” His stakeholders group could sign a legal agreement giving the project a way forward without litigation.

PG&E’s January 25 announcement that it wanted out of Potter Valley complicates the plans being developed in the ad hoc committee. Huffman said that the glue binding potentially antagonistic stakeholders “is the fact that everybody’s at risk. There are really lousy solutions” possible “for everyone, no matter what their perspective.”

As Hydropower Profits Dwindle, Paying off Environmental Debt Gets Harder. But Renewable Energy Mandate May Help

The details of the project’s role in two different water basins are unique, but it has one thing in common with others: its owners are disinclined to pay environmental debts. “There’s the broader context of what’s going on in electricity markets,” said an energy consultant who would not speak for attribution. “With historically low wholesale energy prices, utilities, not surprisingly, will operate their lowest-cost units. Particularly if you have old infrastructure.”

But a new reality is emerging. Climate change puts a different perspective on the future of some small projects: states like California mandate a largely, or entirely carbon-free electric portfolio 25 years hence. “Resources that are 100 percent renewable are the new black,” he said. “That creates an opportunity for resources that have been ugly ducklings.” Todd Olson, a spokesman for PacifiCorp, which relicensed the Wallowa dam in 2017, said, “We went through the whole analysis many times over. We ultimately kept it because it is renewable, and there are other community values.”

Residents of Lake, Mendocino, and Sonoma Counties feel the Potter Valley project is crucial to them. “We’re talking about legacies now,” said Fuller of the fisheries service. “This project has been going on so long, cultures, families and generations are built around it. Say the project goes away: life is going to change for people.”

Data doesn’t yet show a clear trend of small hydropower projects’ owners walking away from them, although Mr. Bodington did say, “The trend is more getting taken down than put up.” Dozens of licenses are due for renewal in the next decade. Studies begin years before a license expires; the Potter Valley project’s license expires in 2022.

Whether or not Scott Dam is removed, and whether or not that decision is part of a wider trend, Mr. Huffman does see attitudes on dam removal changing. “Each time there’s a successful dam removal, it is demystified a little bit,” he said. “You should naturally see things get little bit easier, where dam removal makes sense going forward. But it’s always going to be case by case.”

This report first appeared in the … & the West Blog on March 5, 2019. Find the original article here.