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Bay Nature magazineOct-Dec 2012

Deciding the Fate of Searsville Dam

by on November 07, 2012

Searsville Dam, photo by Alice Cummings.
Searsville Dam, photo by Alice Cummings.

Matt Stoeker, director of Beyond Searsville Dam, is a homegrown activist. He grew up in Portola Valley upstream of the 65-foot-tall dam. He says that as a boy his chosen “religion” was to fish and explore Corte Madera Creek above the dam. The fish he saw in that creek were small, so when at age 19 he saw a 30-inch silver fish jump out of the scour pool at the dam’s foot, he was surprised. “Whoa, what was that?” he said to his friends. The fish, a steelhead trout, jumped out of the water several times in its attempt to get upstream. Each time it slammed into the dam.

“That moment of seeing that steelhead trying to swim home and bouncing off the concrete wall was something I couldn’t walk away from,” says Stoeker, who went on to study restoration ecology in college. Then he returned to his natal creek to start Beyond Searsville Dam, a nonprofit organization that wants to see the dam removed and wild steelhead back in their historic spawning grounds in Corte Madera Creek.

As dam sites go, Searsville is in an ideal location. Six creeks converge in a meadow upstream of a narrow gorge where the dam hovers above San Fransisquito Creek, one of few creeks flowing into San Francisco Bay that still supports a consistent steelhead run. Spring Valley Water Company built the concrete block dam in 1892 and in 1919 sold it to Stanford University.

A Stanford University steering committee is in the process of studying alternatives for future management of the dam, including its possible removal. Like most aging dams, this one is no longer efficient. Sediment accumulated in its reservoir has choked water storage capacity to ten percent of what it once was. But even with its hobbled capacity, the reservoir is a major source for the one million gallons of non-potable water used by the university each day, according to Stanford Report.

“It’s a complicated and nuanced issue,” says Philippe Cohen, executive director of the 1,189-acre Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, about a fifth of which is occupied by the dam, reservoir, and associated freshwater wetlands. Cohen says the committee hopes to make a recommendation to the president and provost by the end of 2013.

Whether the dam comes down or stays, the biggest headache for the university is the sediment behind the dam. Should it be left where it is to protect the freshwater wetlands created by the dam, on which migrating birds have come to depend? Should it be mechanically removed (an expensive proposal), or should it be allowed to slowly flush into the Bay?

For Stoeker, that would be a win-win. Dams have been starving downstream wetlands of sediment for years, says Stoeker, who argues that the sediment will come in handy as sea level rises. “The only sustainable way to deal with rising sea levels is to have enough suspended sediment in the system,” he says. Find out more about Stoeker’s work at beyondsearsvilledam.org.

Most recent in Habitats: Freshwater, Bay, Marine

See all stories in Habitats: Freshwater, Bay, Marine


Matt Stoecker on November 8th, 2012 at 3:22 pm

Thanks Aleta and Bay Nature for writing this article. We appreciate you sharing this important SF Bay issue and restoration opportunity.

Just to clarify, my quote “The only sustainable way to deal with rising sea levels is to have enough suspended sediment in the system” is referring to recent USGS studies that show coastal wetlands around the SF Bay may not be able to keep up with sea level rise due to a lack of their essential building block; suspended sediment that washing over them and settles out during high tides and creek flows. Removing Searsville Dam and restoring the natural sediment transport to the Bay will help build up coastal wetlands as the seas rise and is one of our regions only sustainable options to address climate change impacts on our Bay wetlands.

Another important note about Searsville Reservoir water is that much of it is used to water Stanford’s thirty golf course. A modest increase in the size of one of Stanford’s existing, low impact, off-stream reservoirs can easily replace the disappearing storage at Searsville Reservoir (which is projected to be completely filled in with sediment within the next couple years).

As we are seeing with antiquated dam removal successes all around the country, reliable and more efficient water supply technologies are available than a problematic old dam that degrades the health of the entire watershed and SF Bay. These options, including damless diversions, groundwater recharge, wastewater reuse for landscaping, and off-stream reservoir storage, would benefit Stanford and the surrounding communities. We hope that Stanford will show leadership and practice the cutting edge environmental stewardship they teach in their classrooms.

For more information please visit our website at:



Matt Stoecker
Director, Beyond Searsville Dam

Ben Knight on November 8th, 2012 at 4:34 pm

Thanks for the great story! It’s time to re-think a lot of the dams in this country. http://www.damnationfilm.com

C. on November 9th, 2012 at 7:34 pm

While Stanford U continues to applaud efforts like Elwha Dam removal and other restoration projects. They need to remember, they are the owners of one of the worst ecological problems in the whole Bay Area, if not the worst. They have been doing their best from my veiw, to keep it all hush, hush, then have the nerve to make up poor excuses for it when pressed. It’s high time for them to come clean and do what they can to fix it. Put your best foot forward. Stop with the smoke and mirrors already, so far, to me, Stanford’s endless excuse’s are a bunch of hog wash.

Mike Lunsford on November 12th, 2012 at 10:05 am

Keep up the good work Matt.

Charles Conn on November 12th, 2012 at 11:17 am

This is an important opportunity for the University to do the right thing and involve independent experts in their review. As one of the last functioning ecosystems for anadromous fish in the Bay Area, this is too precious a resource to be traded off against golf course watering needs. There is plenty of experience now on how to handle sediment questions.

LInda Schacht on November 12th, 2012 at 11:42 am

Thanks for a great story about an issue that gets far too little attention. Stanford needs to step up and face facts. I’d like to see the community become more involved in forcing the issue. We’re all in this together when it comes to protecting our resources and wildlife.

Rich Simms on November 12th, 2012 at 9:56 pm

Many of these dams have served their useful purpose and along the way has been a huge impediment to salmon and steelhead recovery buy blocking valuable habitat. We have the opportunity on the Pacific Coast to do the right thing for recovery. If we get out of their way they can do it, we just have to give them a chance. For Stanford University this is an awesome opportunity to be a leader by example and their commitment to the environment and wild fish.

Robin Mankey on November 14th, 2012 at 7:06 am

My family and I live along the lower section of the San Francisquito Creek, the last natural, unpaved creek in our area. It is a stunning, hidden treasure. We must continue to pursue this vision for the future inhabitants of our local region and the far reaches of this habitat that reaches from the foothills to the deep Pacific. So many creatures would return and thrive! Thanks Matt and all of the pioneers in dam removal and habitat restoration. Come on Stanford! (and all necessary authorities!) Get on board! Just say YES! Let the miracle begin!

Doug Stoecker on November 16th, 2012 at 1:09 pm

Aleta and Bay Nature…thank you for recognizing the importance of this critical issue, and tremondous opportunity, in your initial coverage. This is THE environmental issue of our times in the Bay Area, and I encourage you to take a lead role in bringing the topic to your front page, your network, and beyond.
Stanford needs to realize that we, the people of the Bay Area, are aware of their illegal damn operations and devastating effects on our watershed. Without the pressure resulting from this awareness and condemnation, they will continue to believe that their legal team can continue a well funded war of atrition, out of the public’s eye.
Once there is a critical mass thinking Beyond Searsville Damn, the path to recovering will be plotted. Until then, inspiration can be found in the incremental victories, like the recent barrier removal on Bear Creek (in the same watershed)…imagine this on a Searsville scale. And then show your support!

Doyle Sahara on December 2nd, 2012 at 10:06 am

This may sound pretty far out but why not just provide a passage for steelhead migration by either tunnel or an engineered stabilized bank V trench and leave the majority of existing wet lands behind the dam. Has anyone suggested doing an engineering-cost basis study to see if this is possible?

Matt Stoecker on December 13th, 2012 at 2:06 pm

Hi Doyle,
Fish passage around the dam (by fish ladder, by-pass channel, and other means) has been discussed and is currently being investigated as part of the Searsville Study process. However, such an option by itself does not address many of the negative impacts of the dam including; degraded water quality caused by the reservoir, the reservoir harboring and spreading non-native species, enabling downstream migration of steelhead from all 5 upstream tributaries past the dam and reservoir, degrading downstream habitat conditions by blocking critical habitat features such as gravels, boulders, and large wood. Dam removal solves all of these problems and can be completed with a new reliable water system for Stanford and flood protection benefits for residents upstream and downstream. It is important to note that the “wetlands” associated with the dam and reservoir are not sustainable and will disappear or require constant and expensive dredging operations. The dam actually destroyed acres of riparian forest and natural wetland ponds that can be revived with removal and result in a net gain in wetland and riparian forest habitat, along with over 2 miles of restore stream habitat. We do support studying the ideas you mention as part of the process to pick the best possible alternative for the dam. Thanks.

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