Agreement May Be Beginning of the End for Dam


A push to tear down Matilija Dam took a step forward Thursday with the announcement of a cost-sharing agreement between Ventura County officials and the Army Corps of Engineers.

The pact covers a $4.2-million study that will help determine whether the federal government moves forward with a proposal to remove the obsolete dam, which is filled with silt and blocks endangered steelhead trout from their spawning grounds.

If approved by the Board of Supervisors next week, the county would agree to bear 50% of the study's costs, with the other half coming from federal sources. A $1.6-million grant from the California Coastal Conservancy will cover much of the county's share, with the remainder flowing from the county's Flood Control District.

Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) said he is requesting $123,000 on top of a $400,000 appropriation earmarked by the Bush administration for the coming year's budget. That would be in addition to $150,000 that Gallegly secured for studies last year.

"It's a long shot," Gallegly said. "But we have a White House that we can be a little more effective with."

Although support for a feasibility study has been strong for some time, the inking of a cost agreement means that the review will finally begin, said Supervisor Steve Bennett, whose district includes Matilija Dam, located north of Ojai.

"Nobody wanted to spend a dime until we got this agreement signed," Bennett said. "Now studies will start very quickly, almost immediately."

The two-year review will look at a variety of issues, including how best to remove the estimated 6 million cubic yards of sediment trapped behind the dam.

So much dirt has settled behind the dam that it serves no useful purpose, starves the beach of sand and blocks the county's once-plentiful supply of steelhead trout from making their upstream journey. Engineers will look at technical aspects of removing a 190-foot-tall concrete wall and the possible effects on residents and ecosystems along the Ventura River.

Another important consideration will be cost. Estimates for removal range between $25 million and $200 million. The study is expected to provide a more precise figure.

Even with the study nearly underway, it is far from certain that the dam will ever be removed. That will take the cooperation of the federal government, which won't take a position until the feasibility study is complete.

Gallegly said that is appropriate.

"My purpose [in supporting the study] is not to take the dam down," he said. "My purpose is to take the dam down if it meets the test after we have taken all the time and research to see if it makes sense."

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