Stanford faculty committee appointed to study Searsville Dam, Reservoir

A new committee made up of Stanford faculty members will study the Searsville Dam and Reservoir over the next two years, bringing a multidisciplinary perspective in considering the needs of the university, the surrounding community and the environment.

Philippe Cohen Searsville Dam

Searsville Dam was built in 1892 by the for-profit Spring Valley Water Company and acquired by the university in 1919.

Five Stanford scholars who specialize in environmental science, history and law will be studying Searsville Dam over the next several years to recommend a course of action for its future.

The faculty members asked to serve on a new Searsville Study Steering Committee by Robert Reidy, vice president for Land, Buildings and Real Estate, are:

  • Chris Field, professor of biology and of environmental Earth system science and faculty director for the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve.
  • Jeffrey Koseff, the William Alden Campbell & Martha Campbell Professor in the School of Engineering and the Perry L. McCarty Director of the Woods Institute for the Environment.
  • Pamela Matson, the Chester Naramore Dean of the School of Earth Sciences and the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Professor in Environmental Studies.
  • Barton "Buzz" Thompson Jr., the Robert E. Paradise Professor of Natural Resources Law and the Perry L. McCarty Director of the Woods Institute.
  • Richard White, the Margaret Byrne Professor of American History.

Members of the committee are being asked to study the Searsville Dam and Reservoir, which is located in the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, from a multidisciplinary perspective and to assess its future in light of the needs of the university, the surrounding community and the environment.

"There are many complicated issues involved in Searsville Dam and Reservoir, and it is very important to the university that we consider possible future actions with great care," said Jean McCown, director of community relations.  "So we are fortunate that scholars who have committed their lives to studying environmental issues have volunteered to help."

McCown added, "Right now, there is a lot of misinformation out there about Searsville Dam. Our hope is that this faculty committee will assure that the study examines all the issues so that it presents a thoughtful and well-reasoned assessment of potential alternatives."

Among the factors the committee will consider are:

  • Research and academic programs at the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve.
  • The university’s water supply and storage needs.
  • Biological diversity, including both the habitats and wetlands created by the reservoir as well as potential fish passage upstream of the dam.
  • Possible effects on upstream and downstream flood risk.
  • The cost and impact of sediment removal, disposal and ongoing management.

The university recently made a decision to withdraw the dam and reservoir from consideration as part of a proposed Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP). That withdrawal is acknowledgement of the complexity and time needed to determine future alternatives at Searsville, according to McCown.

In the meantime, the HCP, initially proposed in 2008, will implement a conservation program for five protected species on Stanford lands when its review is completed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  Any future proposed changes at Searsville would need to be permitted under the Endangered Species Act. 

Catherine Palter, associate director of land use and environmental planning, said she hopes the HCP review process will finish by late summer. At that point, the university plans to immediately begin the conservation program, including:

  • A 270-acre permanent conservation easement over San Francisquito and Los Trancos creeks.
  • A 90-acre permanent conservation easement over Matadero and Deer creeks.
  • A 315-acre reserve in the lower foothills, where no development would be permitted for at least 50 years.
  • A central campus conservation management area, including continued operation of Lake Lagunita for the benefit of endangered species for at least 50 years.
  • Removal of the non-operating Happy Hollow Dam/Lagunita diversion and restoration of a creek channel to improve fish passage.
  • Removal of agricultural and equestrian facilities near the creeks wherever possible.

HCPs, made possible by the U.S. Endangered Species Act, allow landholders to create long-term conservation plans, rather than rely on short-term, limited mitigations for specific projects that might affect threatened or endangered species. The species of concern to Stanford include the California tiger salamander, steelhead trout, California red-legged frog, Western pond turtle and San Francisco garter snake.

Searsville – the only one of Stanford's water storage dams located directly on a stream – was built in 1892 by the for-profit Spring Valley Water Company and acquired by the university in 1919. Once used for recreation, the lake today suffers from sedimentation that has reduced the water quantity to 10 percent of its original capacity. Still, the dam is a source of non-potable water used at Stanford for landscape irrigation.

The faculty committee studying the dam and reservoir will be aided in its work by staff and faculty members specializing in such areas as engineering, hydrology, risk management, biology, land use, environmental planning and environmental law.