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Ventura County Perspective | PERSPECTIVE ON THE ENVIRONMENT
: 2 Views of Matilija Dam

Structure Should Come Down for Sake of Beaches, Steelhead

The effort would help reestablish the beach replenishment processes and preserve an endangered species.

November 29, 1998|ED HENKE | Ed Henke, 71, grew up in Ventura and now lives in Ashland, Ore

I grew up in Ventura during the 1930s and '40s, and the life was simpler and easier. There were numerous opportunities for a young person to interact with the great outdoors, as there was an abundance of fish, wildlife and natural resources easily accessible--free natural capital for all to enjoy.

In the early days, the old Anacapa Hotel in Ventura would fill up with people from all over Southern California during the trout and steelhead seasons, a local tradition at the time.

John Lorenzana and William "Andy" Anderson lived on Ventura Avenue, and as late as 1946 would hurry down to the Ventura River at the foot of Ramona Street and each catch a limit of three large adult steelhead--and still get to the school bus in time for their first-hour class. During one lunch hour in 1944, a number of classmates drove me down to the mouth of the river, and I caught three large adult steelhead and was back in time for my fifth-hour class.

Before Thanksgiving and Christmas, there were shotgun clay target shoots for turkeys at the foot of Seaward Avenue.

This era came to an abrupt close after World War II. Great natural gifts and traditions freely available for young and old alike were rapidly disappearing.

In January 1994, following my retirement from the business world, I began a historical research project on anadromous salmonids (salmon, trout and related fish that spawn in fresh water but live in the sea) in Southern California coastal waters. When the federal government declared the southern steelhead an endangered species, I narrowed my focus to the Ventura River and advocated removal of the now worthless Matilija Dam to save these fish and to help reestablish sand for eroding Ventura County beaches.

Through previous research, I had estimated that at optimal production periods, the Ventura River system annually produced more than 66,000 pounds of salmonids and more than 16,000 adult steelhead averaging four pounds. As late as 1946, an estimated 5,000 adult steelhead were spawning in the Ventura River system. Chinook or king salmon, which elsewhere have reached record weights of 125 pounds, had been documented in the Ventura River in 1881.

In July I completed this research and presented copies to the Ventura County Board of Supervisors. On Nov. 3, I made a plea before the board, asking the supervisors for a resolution advocating complete removal of Matilija Dam.

They agreed in theory but felt further evaluation was necessary.

In 1941, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson introduced to Congress on behalf of the Army Corps of Engineers its recommendations for the building of four dams on the Ventura River system as proposed by Ventura County officials. The corps gave thumbs down, as none of the dams would provide flood control or water storage on a cost-effective basis. Citizens had also expressed concerns about safe sites.

But the Ventura City Council championed the idea, and in 1945 a water development bond issue that had failed on two previous occasions was passed by Ventura County voters and construction began.

Almost immediately after Matilija Dam construction started in 1946, problems plagued it. Ventura County sued the construction firm over engineering problems and lost, with a $33,000 court assessment. Against the recommendations of a professional, sand and gravel from the Santa Clara River were used and mixed with alkali in the cement. This created an alkali-reactive aggregate condition, causing failing and deteriorating concrete. There was internal swelling, external cracking, disintegration of the dam's concrete wall in the upper 20 to 30 feet, which had to be removed; safety factors of concrete were well below acceptable minimal levels for such arch dams.

And there were other problems. The layer of silt and rock in the stream bed was 20 feet greater than estimated. And the abutments have continued to move during the dam's lifetime.

The problems led to the dam's footbridge being dynamited and the dam being notched twice, down from 163 feet to approximately 130 feet. The dam backs up an estimated 11 million cubic yards of silt and other material. It provides no flood control and minimal water storage.

I urge the complete removal of Matilija Dam and its mountain of silt / sediment / debris for the following reasons:

* Public safety. It's better to take the dam down in a planned and orderly manner than to risk its collapse because of floods or earthquake.

* To reestablish the beach replenishment processes. Sand trapped by the dam should be allowed to resume the natural process of nourishing beaches eroded by ocean waves.

* To help preserve the southern steelhead, an endangered species with only 20 stream miles of refugia area remaining, all of it above Matilija Dam.

* To reestablish historical in-stream values and socioeconomic benefits. Restoring the natural flow of the Ventura River would be good for people as well as fish.

Future generations would thank us for these efforts.

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