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Ventura County Dam Demolition Backed Up

The structure, regarded as obsolete, might not be removed for years. But public officials say they are making progress.

March 27, 2004|Lynne Barnes | Times Staff Writer

Amid much fanfare, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt climbed behind the controls of a construction crane in 2000 and personally removed a 16,000-pound chunk of concrete from the face of Matilija Dam. It was the symbolic first step in razing the dam that has been blamed for the decline of the endangered southern steelhead trout and the depletion of sand at Ventura County beaches.

Babbitt vowed to make the dam's removal a top priority. "I'm absolutely confident that in a number of years I'll be back here as former secretary and a private citizen to celebrate this dam being gone," he said at a news conference attended by numerous dignitaries at the time.

Four years later, Babbitt is no longer secretary and the 20-story-tall dam still stands in the Ventura County backcountry, filled nearly to the top with mud and silt -- with no clear date set for its removal.

But officials said they were making progress. State and local officials recently agreed on a plan to dismantle the dam. And a spokesman for Sen. Barbara Boxer, long a proponent of the demolition project, said this week that she planned to seek funding for it in next year's federal budget.

If approved, the federal government would pick up 65% of the cost, with local and state governments responsible for the remainder.

Though money is tight, "there are still certain projects that are worthy of this kind of funding," said Boxer spokesman David Sandretti. "We're talking about [wildlife] habitat and flood-control issues, which is a public-safety concern."

If all goes well, officials agree that work could begin by 2006. Once demolition commences on what would be one of the largest dam removal projects in the country, it would take another two years to complete.

Asked if he was worried about the amount of time that has elapsed since the effort began, Jeff Pratt, director of the Ventura County Watershed Protection District, which owns the dam, laughed.

"Heck, no," he said. "We're moving at light speed. Remember, we're dealing with the Army Corps of Engineers and federal funding."

The Army Corps, which would oversee the project, is working on a feasibility study that must be completed by the end of the year before the project can be authorized, Pratt said.

Critics say the 145-foot dam, built in 1947 for flood control, has outlived its usefulness. It was designed to hold 5,000 acre-feet of water, but the buildup of silt and mud behind the dam has reduced its storage capacity to 400 acre-feet. The silt also blocks migration of endangered southern steelhead trout and prevents sand from washing downstream to replenish Ventura County beaches.

As the reservoir created by the dam has filled with silt, the number of steelhead in the Ventura River has dwindled to several hundred, Pratt said. "There's supposed to be 5,000 to 7,000."

Even so, lawmakers aren't worried about the pace of the project.

"There's a lot of things you have to get worked out," said Ventura County Supervisor Steve Bennett, whose district includes Matilija. "We have tons of design work that needs to be done and permits that have to be coordinated."

A spokesman for Rep. Elton Gallegly, another longtime proponent of dumping the dam, also looked at the big picture.

"The dam was built with the idea that it was going to solve problems," Tom Pfeifer said. "Well, it's caused problems. If you take it down, you want to make sure it's not going to cause more problems."

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