Matilija Dam during the rains of 2005. An estimated 2 million cubic yards of silt and fine sediments must be removed as part of the $145 million dam demolition project.
By Daryl Kelley
With a Meiners Oaks church refusing to lease Ventura river-bottom land, government agencies have been forced to back away from their top choice for disposal of a 20-foot-high mound of silt as part of the Matilija Dam removal project.Members of the Church of the Living Christ rejected last week a lease with Ventura County and the U.S. government that would have allowed 2.1 million cubic yards of slurried silt to be piped from behind the aging dam to a 74-acre site at the base of a bluff next to Rice Road.
That leaves the county’s Watershed Protection District, the U.S. Corps of Engineers, the state Coastal Conservancy and county Supervisor Steve Bennett with the question of how to proceed now with a key part of a plan to tear down Matilija Dam.
Funding for $90 million of the $145-million dam removal project, the first of its kind in the nation, was approved by Congress last year. But where to move silt from behind the dam has become a thorny question.
Project managers have said $5 million to $6 million can be saved by piping silt slurry to the Meiners Oaks site and drying it there, instead of pumping it to other sites miles farther down the Ventura River near Baldwin Road.
The silt must be moved from behind the dam because it would likely clog the Robles fish ladder just up-river from Meiners Oaks if it were allowed to simply wash downstream during storms once the dam is removed, officials have said.
But environmental and conservation groups, along with several dozen nearby residents, have criticized the Meiners Oaks disposal site.
Critics favor use of two sites north and south of Baldwin Road that would allow most of the silt to be naturally washed away to Ventura beaches during wet years.
Conversely, they maintain the Meiners Oaks site would become a permanent visual blight, alter the natural course of the river and hinder access to public hiking trails, while possibly creating flooding problems, sullying groundwater supplies and producing noise and dust for years.
Critics also say the government has underestimated the cost of the Meiners Oaks option and that it might cost as much as the Baldwin Road alternatives.
Because of rejection by the church, government officials are rethinking their options. But they maintain that the Meiners Oaks option could still be viable, if they can prove to church members that the broader Ojai Valley community favors that plan.
“My information is that all options are still on the table, that the church didn’t close the door on revisiting the issue,” said Peter Sheydayi, project manager for the Watershed Protection District.
Pastor Ron Triggs confirmed that church members might reconsider the issue if they become convinced it has broad community support. But for now, the church’s position is that the county should look elsewhere.
“Our membership would likely revisit it and likely pass it if they had some way of knowing the community was in support,” Triggs said Wednesday. “But they would want to know how our community feels.”
The church balked at a $180,000 lease offer because of opponents’ concerns and the potential for a community backlash, Triggs said.
“There was a high concern among some members that the community would become angry with the church and feel we did it only for the money —that there would be some kind of backlash,” he said.
As a result, the church council decided the full membership should vote on the issue. And to retain consensus, the council decided an 85 percent super-majority was needed for passage. Only 70 percent favored the lease, so it failed, Triggs said.
If the county were able to show community support for the Meiners Oaks site, of which the church owns the majority, the congregation would probably reconsider a lease or outright sale of its 46-acre portion of the disposal area, he said.
Meanwhile, an early February meeting in which the project’s oversight committee was expected to announce a disposal site likely will have to be rescheduled, said the county’s Sheydayi.
“At this point, we need to meet and discuss our options as an executive team,” he said.
Sheydayi acknowledged that cost estimates of the disposal alternatives, provided by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, were based on a “very limited analysis” under the assumption that all sites would be cleared and restored in a similar fashion.
But now the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy has questioned whether the restoration of the Meiners Oaks site might not cost as much as the $5 million saved on transportation because it would have to be replanted as permanent, while the Baldwin Road sites are in the immediate flood plain and might not have to be.
“We have a lot of big concerns,” said Stevie Adams, project manager for the Land Conservancy, which owns about 1,700 acres adjacent to the disposal site and maintains access to hiking trails across the church property.
The conservation group not only questions cost estimates, but also is concerned that the silt pile, protected from erosion by a new levee, would become a permanent eyesore, she said.
“That pile would always be there,” she said. “We’re also concerned that the county would not be able to maintain trail access through this pile of slurry. And the aesthetics of it are a huge issue … (pictures) show other sites look like the moon.”
The Land Conservancy estimates that 250 people a day visit its Riverview Trial during peak season.
Another opponent, Paul Jenkin, founder of the Matilija Coalition and executive director of the local chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, has pushed a Baldwin Road alternative that would affect two sites closer to the river and be subject to flooding during heavy rains, which would carry the silt to the ocean.
“The county has appeared to be pretty hell-bent on this Meiners Oaks proposal,” Jenkin said. He thinks a slurry pile there would forever change the natural course of the Ventura River. And restoration of the natural river valley is the key goal of the dam removal effort, he said.
“This is one of the first projects of its kind around the world,” Jenkin said. “And we’re hoping this will be a good example, not a bad one.”
Lynn Malone, a neighbor who fears flooding, traffic, noise and dust problems, thinks the Meiners Oaks disposal would undermine the value of her property by making her community a less inviting place to live.
Indeed, 44 nearby Meiners Oaks area residents signed a petition against the plan, she said. And the Meiners Oaks County Water District has hired a consultant to determine if its wells would be affected by seepage from the silt pile.
“Everybody is guessing the county will go back to the church with another offer,” said Malone, who is also membership director for the Land Conservancy.
For his part, Sheydayi said arguments against a Baldwin Road alternative are not only greater costs, but also concerns by the Ventura River County Water District about proximity to its wells.
“And both Baldwin Road sites would have a substantial amount of impact on their neighbors,” he said.
That impact would be the risk of erosion of river banks resulting from the silt deposits.
“That would be a risk,” Sheydayi said.
For now, he said, “all options are still under consideration.”
The earliest actual dam demolition could happen is during 2010-2012, according to a feasibility study completed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers four years ago.
In addition to the federal government’s contribution, about $55 million would be required from state and local sources. Almost all of that would come from bonds issued by the state, which has endorsed the project and has assigned the Coastal Conservancy as the point agency for it.
So far, the state has spent several million dollars to design the dam removal project.
But state and federal budget crises have raised questions about the reliability of that funding.
Matilija Dam, built in 1948 for flood control and water storage, has been obsolete for decades, because it quickly filled with sediment from Matilija Canyon runoff. Now, only 5 percent of its storage contains water. Millions of cubic feet of sediment fill the rest of the reservoir.