Manning the pedals and levers of a towering blue crane, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt pulled a 16,000-pound chunk from the mammoth face of Matilija Dam on Thursday morning, the first symbolic step in the demolition of the aging 20-story-tall structure.
“Now that was real power,” Babbitt said with a grin as he wiped sweat from his brow and greeted an applauding crowd of politicians, environmentalists and community leaders. More than 100 people gathered at the top of the dam north of Ojai to celebrate the kickoff of a demonstration project that will test methods for tearing down the concrete structure.
Local dignitaries--including Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) and Ventura County Supervisors Kathy Long and John Flynn--characterized the event as the first real movement toward razing the crumbling structure, a daunting job that could cost up to $170 million.
“This is a historic moment for me,” Flynn said. “It’s a step that shows we have the momentum to take that dam down.”
Matilija Dam, built in 1948 to provide drinking water to the Ojai Valley and reduce flood hazards on the Ventura River, is now choked with 6 million cubic yards of sand and dirt and is cracking with age.
Environmentalists and political leaders argue that the massive structure blocks the endangered steelhead trout from prime spawning grounds upstream in Matilija Creek and robs Ventura County’s beaches of sand.
Babbitt agreed, and promised that in his last 120 days in office the federal government will do its part to see the project through. Officials have estimated it could cost from $22 million to $170 million to remove the dam and the silt behind it, depending on the method used.
“We will produce the resources that will bring your plans to reality,” Babbitt said. “The benefits, in the long run, will far outweigh the costs.”
Thursday’s ceremonial tear-down kicked off a $426,000 county demonstration project, approved by supervisors in August, which aims to determine the best method to remove the dam’s concrete face. Three cutting techniques will be tested.
Ron Coons, Ventura County director of public works, said crews began preparing for Babbitt’s visit about three weeks ago, but the real work began Thursday and will continue for about a month.
For the past three years, Babbitt has led a nationwide tour to knock down about a dozen obsolete dams, usually carrying a symbolic sledgehammer with him. Matilija, which is 198 feet tall and 600 feet wide, is the largest dam in the country to be targeted for removal.
“When I saw a picture of this thing I knew it was time to bring in the heavy equipment,” he quipped, pointing to the massive dam that, along with the mountains of Los Padres National Forest, served as a backdrop for the ceremony. “With Matilija, we’re entering the next chapter of dam removal.”
And it’s an important chapter for the future of Ventura County, said Nick DiCroce of California Trout. The nonprofit group has pushed for the dam’s removal so the county’s once-plentiful population of steelhead trout can be restored.
“My fantasy is to see abundant schools of steelhead swimming up the Ventura River, past the former Matilija Dam and up into the reaches of the river where they will spawn and continue their life cycle,” DiCroce said. He challenged the crowd to remove the dam within five years--about the same amount of time it took to build it in the 1940s. Officials previously estimated the task would take 10 to 40 years.
That is precisely why Babbitt said he made the trek to Ventura County this week, reaffirming his commitment to making it happen sooner.
“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,” Babbitt said.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, an agency that Babbitt oversees, is working with other state and federal agencies on the project’s feasibility study, which could take another two years to complete.
The colossal amount of sediment stacked behind the dam poses a more perplexing problem than the concrete structure itself, officials said. Possibilities for removing the silt range from building a large conveyor belt that would move material from the dam to the beach for sand replenishment to progressively sawing off chunks of the dam and letting nature take its course.
But while there may be no consensus on the best way to remove the dam, most everyone has agreed it should come down since it was first proposed by environmentalist Ed Henke in his 1998 position paper, “A Case for the Removal of Matilija Dam.”
Henke, who grew up in Ventura County but now lives in Ashland, Ore., attended Thursday’s ceremony and left feeling “overwhelmed.”
“We’re finding our place in this great big ecosystem,” Henke said. “We have to show the whole world we can do this.”