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Battle Heats Up Over Stanford Watering Golf Course Instead of Protecting Endangered Steelhead During Extreme Drought
A battle is heating up between Stanford University and environmentalists over the increasingly controversial Searsville Dam.
This 65-foot, 122-year-old structure, owned and operated by the university, is located on Stanford’s Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, an area that provides “a refuge to native plants and animals.” Yet, the dam blocks the migration of threatened native steelhead trout that are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Earlier this year, the national river conservation group, American Rivers, named the downstream portion of San Francisquito Creek the “fifth most endangered river in the United States,” citing Searsville Dam as the culprit. Learn more in the following American Rivers video:
Stanford touts itself as being a leader in global sustainability, yet they have regularly diverted water from this endangered species habitat to water their golf course and other campus landscaping, and often run afoul of environmental regulatory agencies regarding their habitat protection efforts. And despite a temporary halt in diversions from Searsville Dam due to historically low water levels, the university’s land and buildings department has plans to expand its use of water from local creeks to irrigate the lawns of faculty housing.
Searsville Dam and its downstream water diversions, exacerbated by the extreme drought conditions, have dramatically reduced flows in San Francisquito Creek and its tributaries, harming fish by impeding upstream migration, reducing habitat area, causing excessive warming of the creek waters and blocking the flow of gravels and natural woody debris needed to create steelhead habitat. During this year’s rainy season, the creek below Searsville Dam was bone dry because the reservoir never reached its spillover capacity, which represents a potentially catastrophic situation for the migrating fish.
Right now there are two pending lawsuits related to the environmental impact of Searsville Dam on the creek and its tributaries. The first, in the discovery phase, was filed against Stanford in January 2013 by two Northern California-based environmental organizations, Our Children’s Earth and the Ecological Rights Foundation. The suit alleges that the dam prevents steelhead from migrating up San Francisquito Creek, while Stanford's use of water from the reservoir degrades habitat downstream by reducing water levels. The plaintiffs want Stanford to curb its use of water and implement a plan to allow the fish to get past the dam, either by creating a bypass or removing the structure altogether.
The second lawsuit was filed in March by the same plaintiffs, this time against the National Marine Fisheries Service for failing to enforce the Endangered Species Act. According to Christopher Sproul, the lead attorney in the case, “Stanford should no longer be authorized to take water out of these two diversions, particularly in the face of the worst drought in California’s history. The critical ecological function of steelhead habitat for a quarter-mile below the dam has been crushed, and habitat farther down the creek degraded, placing the local population of steelhead at great risk.”
Increasing evidence of Stanford’s violations is surfacing, as more information related to the lawsuits comes to light. A timeline demonstrating the university’s lack of reporting to the Army Corps of Engineers, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the California State Water Resources Control Board can be found here.
In the meantime, a coalition of environmental groups and a growing group of Stanford alumni are calling for the university to remove Searsville Dam as soon as possible, while addressing other obsolete fish barriers and infrastructure in order to restore critical habitat and reclaim miles of historic spawning ground for threatened steelhead trout.
The university is currently conducting a study to assess its management options, and plans to make a decision on the removal of Searsville Dam sometime later this year.
In the end, that choice will offer a clear lens on what Stanford values.
Protecting threatened steelhead?
Or green lawns?
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"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.
The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.
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"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."
Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.
Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.
That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.
Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.
If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.
"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."
To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.
"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."
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