River of Sand

Matilija Coalition founder Paul Jenkin’s quest to tear down a dam began not on a river, but on the beach at Surfer’s Point in Ventura, California, where ocean waves threatened to devour a new bike path, and talk of building a half-mile seawall to protect it was growing louder.

As a surfer, Paul had seen how seawalls can accelerate the erosion of beaches and ruin surf breaks. And as an ocean engineer and member of the Surfrider Foundation, he knew that rivers naturally transported cobble and sand to the beach helping to protect such things as bike paths. Paul was certain that pouring a wall of concrete at this popular surf spot was not the answer, but that taking down a different wall just might do the trick.

The other wall was Matilija Dam, which is tucked away in a narrow canyon near Ojai, California, some 16 miles inland from Surfer’s Point. It was completed in 1948 at a cost of $2 million to store water for the Ojai Valley and to prevent flooding on the Ventura River, which empties into the ocean near Surfer’s Point. Some 200 feet high and 620 feet wide, Matilija is a massive barrier that not only keeps sand from the beach, but has also been blocking steelhead trout from their historic spawning grounds for more than 60 years, hastening the decline of this popular game fish to an estimated 25 today. The dam is deemed unsafe, its concrete is crumbling, and its reservoir is filled almost entirely with silt, rock and debris.

“It seemed like a no-brainer at the time,” Paul said. “There was an obsolete dam, built on an earthquake fault that was a liability to its owners [Ventura County], trapping millions of cubic yards of sediment that should have been building the beaches and protecting the coast.”

That was 18 years ago. The bike path was rerouted, but the dam still stands, as its many stakeholders grapple with the technical and political nuances of taking it down without choking downstream areas with silt, while still getting sand on the beach. Coming up with the estimated $200 million to do so is another thing altogether.

For more on Matilija Dam, visit matilija-coalition.org.