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Photo Essay: Community-Based Monitoring and the Matilija Dam

Matilija Dam Removing the Matilija Dam will be no easy feat. Standing at a height of roughly 168-feet, or about 15 stories tall, this 73-year-old concrete structure blocks the flow of Matilija Creek, a major tributary of the Ventura River in Southern California.

reservoir with mountains in background Heavy sedimentation in the reservoir above the dam has effectively eliminated its capacity to provide the water storage and flood control services for which it was originally built. Some have even described its design as “flawed from the outset.” Removing the dam has the potential to revitalize sediment transport patterns and other ecosystem processes that increase groundwater storage, restore downstream beaches, and provide critical habitat to species like the endangered Southern California steelhead trout. Fundraising for the removal is well underway, with local groups leading the charge to come up with the $180 million necessary for the many project components.

person using an electronic monitor at a creekIn any conservation or restoration project, monitoring is an important way for scientists, resource managers, and communities to learn about environmental conditions and take action accordingly. While there is no formal monitoring program in place related to the Matilija Dam removal, it’s not too early to begin exploring the role that local communities can play that process. 

With support from the Open Rivers Fund, our team at the Center for Community and Citizen Science has been working with various partners in Southern California to build capacity for community-based monitoring. In addition to providing data on the watershed to inform dam removal efforts, community-based monitoring can also create opportunities for learning, community engagement, and stewardship. Beginning that work now can help to build a baseline of understanding, in advance of significant change in the watershed. It can also develop important experiential and practical knowledge that can plug into a formal program once the dam removal is closer at hand.

left: person using electronic probe in creek; right: small frog underwaterThere are already some community-based monitoring efforts underway in the watershed, and any new capacity-building effort should take these into account. During a visit to Southern California in February, 2020, we joined Santa Barbara Channelkeeper’s Stream Team to participate in their water quality monitoring activities at various sites along the Ventura River. Here, Ryan uses a water conductivity sensor to assess water quality above the dam, which will be recorded and inputted into a database that will allow Channelkeeper to assess long-term trends. A Pacific chorus frog decided to join our activities, and served as a reminder of this watershed’s abundant biodiversity. 

people standing ankle deep in rocky riverDuring a visit to the Ventura River Preserve, managed by the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy, we learned more about their work protecting and restoring land throughout the region, and the potential role community-based monitoring could play in that ongoing work. It also provided a chance for team members Ryan and Chris to get their feet wet – literally!

community meeting in large auditorium Dam removal efforts at this scale are enormously complex, and not just from an engineering standpoint. At both technical meetings and community town halls, like the event pictured above, we learned more about engineering challenges, fundraising updates, stakeholder interests, and the great variety of partnerships required to move forward with this ambitious project. 

left: people walking up concrete stairs; right: large river estuaryProject leaders took us on a tour of key sites in the watershed related to dam removal. Tracing the length of the Ventura River, we began upstream near the border of Los Padres National Forest to see the dam itself, and ended downstream near the ecologically important Ventura River estuary on the coast. 

stream going through mountainous canyonThe Ventura River watershed is home to a large number of schools and non-profits with an active interest in environmental education. We’ve been meeting with educators, including faculty from the Green Schools Coalition, a network of seven different high schools who participate in environmental advocacy initiatives in and around the Ojai Valley. We also met with Once Upon a Watershed, a project sponsored by the Ventura Land Trust that provides watershed-focused educational programming to younger students in the region. Our Center’s research has demonstrated the meaningful science learning opportunities that can arise from youth participation in community and citizen science.

rocky portion of Ventura RiverThese site visits and meetings provided a foundation for our multiple upcoming collaborations with community organizations in the watershed over the course of the next year. In the upper watershed, we will be partnering with the Green Schools Coalition to support students in designing youth-led monitoring projects that are responsive to both community and scientific priorities. We will also be partnering with the MERITO Foundation in the lower watershed to develop a field-trip based model in which middle and high school students and teachers in Ventura collect and analyze data related to the dam removal effort as part of a place-based science curriculum. Working with stakeholders like the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy, Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, Ventura Land Trust, and Watershed Progressive as part of these efforts will link monitoring with watershed stewardship restoration. We are excited to spend this time building capacity for community-based monitoring as a means to connect science, conservation, and communities in Ventura County in the year ahead!

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