The Portola Valley Town Council has put itself on record supporting steps that would create an unimpeded migratory path for ocean-going fish, such as steelhead trout heading home to the San Francisquito Creek watershed in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
The letter does not specifically advocate taking down the Searsville Dam on Corte Madera Creek, just that its presence "prevents all (upstream) migration of native fish" and presents "a major barrier to the downstream migration of native rainbow trout."
A unanimous council agreed on Jan. 28 to sign the letter at the request of residents Tom Shreck, Bill Kaspari and Danna Breen.
The views of the dam's owner, Stanford University, were not represented at the meeting and Councilwoman Ann Wengert expressed some concern about that, but decided to join her colleagues in signing the letter.
Full of silt
Searsville Dam and the reservoir and lake behind it are located in the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve on the borders of Woodside and Portola Valley.
The dam was built in 1892 by the for-profit Spring Valley Water Company and acquired by Stanford in 1919 as a water supply, according to an account about the dam and lake on Stanford's website.
When Corte Madera Creek is sufficiently full, the university says, the lake's water is used by the university for irrigation, agriculture and fire protection. The drought has made that water supply unavailable since March 2013.
The lake is nearly full of silt, a consequence of the tendency of rocks upstream in the Santa Cruz Mountains to degrade and enter local creeks as sediment during heavy rains, according to a 2014 issue of the Stanford Report.
Should the lake be dredged? Should the dam be dismantled? What about the animals and plant habitats when there was a flowing creek, when it was a functioning lake, and now that it is transforming into a wetland? What about a fish ladder? How does keeping the dam or removing it affect the flood potential in Menlo Park, Palo Alto and East Palo Alto?
A group of Stanford faculty and staff has been studying these questions since 2011. A final report and a decision on what to do are imminent, according to staff at Portola Valley Town Hall. A project design, environmental assessment and public comment period would follow.
The council's letter preempts the group's decision and the public-comment period. Why send it? The letter can "let (Stanford) know ahead of time if they're facing a decision that we know is going to be difficult for them," said Councilman Craig Hughes. "It's a good idea to put in our opinion as a neighbor. ... It makes the process easier going forward."
The letter professes an understanding of Stanford's point of view and at the same time highlights the town's record as an environmental steward. The letter notes the town's longstanding concern over the San Francisquito Creek watershed and the town's extraordinary grass-roots campaign to raise more than $500,000 from residents to un-bury some 280 feet of Sausal Creek at Town Center.
To see the letter, click here and go to Page 160.
"I think (the letter) is incredibly benign and gentle," Ms. Breen said. "If we are, in fact, stewards of creeks and lands, we need to make a statement about this."
"It's non-pejorative," said former councilwoman Sue Crane. "I think we would be happy to have our voice heard by Stanford." The university is a "sleeping giant," she added. "There's lots of other times we wanted to speak out and say something.
Alex Von Feldt, a planning commissioner and, along with Ms. Breen and Councilwoman Maryan Moise Derwin, a signatory to a 2007 fundraising letter to open up Sausal Creek, called the situation at the lake unsustainable and advised the council to send the letter.
With the dam intact, the options include a fish ladder, but "very large" fish ladders don't work, Ms. Von Feldt said. "Hopefully we can see something happen in our lifetimes."
Councilman John Richards said he was "a little puzzled" that the council hadn't yet voiced its opinion, and that he would be in favor of more vigorous advocacy.
Ms. Derwin added: "There's just much here that we can embrace and I think we have a responsibility as stewards of the creeks and the lands. ... I am really, really hopeful thankful to the residents who brought this to us."