Using 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 structure.
"Now that was real power," Babbitt said with a grin as he greeted an applauding crowd of politicians, environmentalists and community leaders who gathered for the start of a project that will test methods for tearing down the 20-story-tall dam north of Ojai.
Matilija Dam, built in 1948 to provide drinking water to the Ojai Valley and reduce flood hazards on the Ventura River, is choked with 6 million cubic yards of sand and dirt and is cracking with age.
Environmentalists and political leaders argue that the dam 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 he will, for at least the 120 days that he remains in office, help see the project through. Officials have estimated the cost of removing the dam and the silt behind it at $22 million to $170 million.
"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 ceremony kicked off a $426,000 county project to determine the best way to dismantle the dam. Three cutting techniques will be tested.
For the last 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 spans 600 feet, is the largest of the targeted dams.
The nonprofit group California Trout 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," said Nick DiCroce, a member of the group. He hoped the dam would be gone within five years, about the same amount of time it took to build it in the 1940s. Officials previously have estimated the time frame for demolition at 10 to 40 years.
Babbitt said he came to Ventura County to make 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, which 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, officials said. Possibilities for removing the silt range from building a large conveyor belt that would move material onto the beach for sand replenishment to progressively sawing off chunks of the dam and letting nature take its course.
The dam's demolition was first proposed by Ed Henke in his 1998 position paper, "A Case for the Removal of Matilija Dam."
Henke, who grew up in Ventura County and now lives in Ashland, Ore., said he left the ceremony 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."