The effort to tear down Matilija Dam near Ojai has received funds that will be used to knock off part of the aging structure as a possible prelude to its ultimate removal.
The California Coastal Conservancy, meeting in Oakland on Wednesday, approved a $200,000 grant to Ventura County to pay for a portion of the work. The project entails hauling a giant crane into the back country and removing the top five feet of the concrete edifice that towers 190 feet above a mountain stream.
The experience gained will help officials determine the best methods to bring down the rest of the structure and assess whether it could be done cost effectively, said Neal Fishman, project manager for the Coastal Conservancy.
"It's very significant because it would be the largest dam yet taken down in the United States. It could act as a model for taking some other dams down," said County Supervisor John K. Flynn.
An unusual coalition is calling for removal of the dam, which has been blamed for robbing beaches of sand and ruining migratory runs of steelhead trout in the Ventura River. Environmentalists, coastal businesses and fishermen support the project. In October, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said tearing down the dam would be a top priority.
Built in 1947, Matilija Dam was supposed to store water and control flood surges. But silt and rock quickly filled it to the brim. A portion was removed decades ago because of decaying concrete. Today, the dam holds scant water and is widely considered to have outlived its usefulness.
The pilot program calls for removing an 800-square-foot chunk of the dam in October. A large crane must be disassembled, hauled to the site and reassembled, and saws will be used to cut concrete. The full cost of the project is estimated at $500,000, and the additional money is likely to come from the National Fisheries Foundation, Ventura County Flood Control District and Port Hueneme, Ventura and Oxnard, Flynn said.
In addition, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Bureau of Reclamation are in the midst of related studies on ways to remove the dam.