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Plans to Remove Dam Advance

A federal bill to help fund the Ventura River restoration project moves to the full Senate.

June 25, 2004|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

Efforts to demolish Matilija Dam as part of a long-awaited Ventura River restoration project got a major boost Thursday with the announcement that federal funding is close at hand.

U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) helped secure nearly $79 million for removing the dam and affiliated restoration projects as part of the 2004 Water Resources Development Act, according to Boxer's office.

The bill was approved this week by the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee, of which Boxer is a member, and now goes to the full Senate for consideration. A House version of the bill passed last year by a 412-8 vote.

"This funding represents the critical step that we need for the long-term success of this project," said Steve Bennett, chairman of the Ventura County Board of Supervisors. "This is the big enchilada."

Supporters say tearing down the 190-foot-high dam north of Ojai will help replenish eroding beaches near the mouth of the Ventura River and revive a historic breeding area for endangered steelhead trout.

The trout, which can grow up to 3 feet long, once traveled from the mountains to the sea and back again along Southern California's rivers. But their numbers have dropped precipitously in recent decades as upstream breeding grounds were closed off by dams and roads.

Bennett, whose district includes the 56-year-old dam, said the bill requires local authorities to complete their environmental study on removal of the structure by Dec. 31 to qualify for the funds. Estimates on the projects' total price range from $95 million to $130 million, with the federal government agreeing to pick up 65% of the costs.

The California Coastal Conservancy, which has spent about $2 million helping analyze the feasibility of removing the dam, would help the county secure its portion of state funds set aside from previous bond issues to enhance clean water.

Because nearly two years of engineering work would first be needed, tearing down the dam would not likely begin before spring 2007. The total restoration project might take up to four years, because heavy rains in Matilija Valley prevent work during the rainy season.

While removing the dam itself is only expected to cost about $11 million, Bennett said most of the money was needed to move about 6 million cubic yards of silt and sediment that have accumulated behind the dam.

"We've taken great pains to make sure the project doesn't make water quality any worse than it is," said Jeff Pratt, director of the Ventura County Watershed Protection District, which owns the dam.

The district, in partnership with the Army Corps of Engineers, expects to release a draft environmental impact report early next month. Because so many water agencies, government, community and environmental interests have been consulted in preparing the report, Pratt and Bennett say the environmental review process may be completed within 90 days and easily meet the federal deadline.

Jim Edmondson, chairman of the Southern California Steelhead Coalition, applauded Boxer's effort and said he did not expect much opposition to the project. "It looks good that this has such broad support across Ventura County," he said.

The House is scheduled to vote today on a $28-billion energy and water appropriations bill that includes $400,000 that Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) added for the corps to continue studying the feasibility of razing the dam.

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