On a divisive barrier, a snippy bit of graffiti
If life imitated art, it would be a simple matter to follow the dotted line and snip a 200-foot dam near Ojai off the face of the earth.
For years, an alliance of environmentalists, fishermen, surfers and officials from every level of government has called for demolishing the obsolete structure.
Now, an anonymous band of artists has weighed in, apparently rappelling down the dam’s face to paint a huge pair of scissors and a long dotted line. The carefully planned work popped up last week and is, no doubt, Ventura County’s most environmentally correct graffiti by a dam site.
“Everyone I’ve talked to has really enjoyed it,” said Jeff Pratt, Ventura County’s public works director. “It sends a good message.”
That message? Tear the thing down already.
Matilija Dam was built in 1947 for flood control and water storage. But officials say it was flawed from the outset. For decades, it’s been holding back silt as much as water, depriving beaches 17 miles downstream of the sand they need to replenish themselves.
It’s also been deemed a huge obstacle for steelhead trout, an endangered species that was once a trophy fish luring anglers from across the country.
Officials say they don’t know who painted the shears, and they’re careful to note that such acts -- even in the name of art -- are illegal and dangerous. The dam is challenging enough that rescue squads use it for climbing practice, pounding in metal anchors that may have aided the scissors hands.
But even if the painting is no more legal than garden-variety graffiti, some say it speaks to the takedown’s glacial pace.
“We’ve studied this to death and talked about it forever,” said Paul Jenkin of the Matilija Coalition, an alliance of community groups pushing for the dam’s removal. “There’s very strong support from the community, and that’s part of what we’re seeing with the graffiti.”
Coincidentally, environmentalists, county officials, the Army Corps of Engineers and others concerned about Matilija met on Wednesday -- the morning a story about the mystery shears appeared on the front page of the Ventura County Star.
The group is facing obstacles comparable to those of the steelhead trout: six million cubic yards of silt, an earthquake fault, and costs estimated at more than $140 million. In better times, federal funding seemed close at hand -- but now, not so much.
The current plan is ambitious enough: Take pressure off the aging structure by chopping 20 feet off the top and allowing more sediment to wash downstream.
Meanwhile, the artwork will stay in place.
“It’s certainly raised awareness,” Pratt said.