About 300 people showed up this week to air suggestions and concerns on removal of the Matilija Dam, north of Ojai.
While nearly everyone seemed to favor the dam's demise, the 20 speakers at the meeting Thursday evening in Ventura raised questions over safety, the environment and the multimillion-dollar cost of the project. The meeting was hosted by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Ventura County Flood Control District.
The reservoir created by the dam holds only about 1.3 million gallons--5% of its original capacity--primarily because an estimated 6 million cubic yards of sediment are trapped behind the dam.
That sediment contains everything from silt and sand to clay and boulders.
The concrete dam is an imposing structure at 168 feet high and 620 wide. There are several options for removing it. One includes taking chunks from the top of the dam and allowing the sediment to gradually wash downstream over an extended period. Another option is to scoop all the sediment out from behind the dam and dump it elsewhere.
Most officials believe that if the dam had not been built 55 years ago on the north fork of Matilija Creek, about 16 miles from the ocean, much of the trapped material would have naturally washed downstream, and replenished Ventura's beaches.
"I think it would be a definite opportunity for us to help restore some of the sediment along the coastline," said Richard Handley, a member of the Surfrider Foundation.
The project could take from two to 25 years to complete, depending on which removal option is used, and cost $20 million to $200 million, said James Hutchison of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Removal of the dam also would benefit species such as steelhead trout, which cannot bypass the structure to spawn upstream. County Supervisor John Flynn recalled that the fish were plentiful in his childhood.
"We'd walk by the water and there would be steelhead by the hundreds, it would seem, going upstream," Flynn said.
"The beneficiaries of this project will be our children and grandchildren."
Some speakers feared that allowing extra silt from behind the dam to flow freely could cloud the water and harm the steelhead. Others just hoped to return the environment to the way it was before the dam was built.
"We're concerned with water and sand," said Kevin Ready, executive director of Beacan, an agency that represents five coastal cities, and Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. "There's got to be a good way to make use of both of them."
Other species as well could benefit from the restoration of the river's ecosystem. Besides steelhead, officials have identified 27 species within the Ventura River watershed that are threatened to some degree, including two-striped garter snakes, California red-legged frogs and southwestern pond turtles.
Although some speakers said they looked forward to the additional fishing and swimming opportunities removal of the dam would create, some residents feared crowds.
"I don't look forward to the day when thousands of fishermen come to Matilija Canyon and trespass on my land," landowner Morgan Alexander said.
The final environmental impact report on the project is not due until fall 2004.
The study to determine the best option for the dam's removal will cost about $4.2 million, with half paid by county taxpayers. Some residents balked at the price tag for the study and removal.
Other speakers were concerned that care be taken if dam removal uncovers toxic substances or Native American artifacts.
Still, most seemed to look forward to free-flowing waters. "The dam coming down is a good thing," said Julie Tumamait Stenslie of the Chumash nation. "I believe it brings our world back into balance."
For more information about the Matilija Dam Ecosystem Restoration Project, log onto www.matilijadam.org.