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Stanford moving ahead with 50-year conservation plan

Stanford is beginning the process of implementing a 50-year Habitat Conservation Plan under the auspices of the Endangered Species Act. The extensive plan includes permanent conservation easements focusing on habitats of the California tiger salamander, California red-legged frog and San Francisco garter snake.

On Nov. 23, the federal government published a final Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that constitute the next step in receiving approval for Stanford to begin implementing measures for protected species on campus.

Natalie McNear/flickrCalifornia tiger salamander

The California tiger salamander is among the species that are of long-term concern to Stanford.

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. At Stanford, those types of projects include road maintenance, field research, construction or conservation activities. The species that are of long-term concern to Stanford are California tiger salamander, steelhead, California red-legged frog, Western pond turtle and an intergrade form of San Francisco garter snake.

The university first began developing the HCP more than a decade ago in partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Within 30 days of having published the HCP and EIS, the federal government can begin issuing incidental take permits, which are a key provision of HCPs. Incidental take permits recognize that some activities could lead to the unintentional "taking," or death, of an protected animal. HCPs, however, create a partnership between landowners and the federal government to minimize the possibility of harm to protected species through conservation efforts.

Permanent easements

The HCP that Stanford hopes to begin implementing features permanent easements along several of Stanford's waterways, including Matadero and Deer creeks, to enhance riparian habitats. In addition, the HCP includes creation of a 315-acre tiger salamander reserve in the lower foothills and allows for continued water supply to Lagunita to support salamander breeding.

The plan divides the university's lands into four habitat zones, establishing a comprehensive conservation program for each and outlining how Stanford will monitor the status of protected species.

The HCP Stanford initially proposed to the federal agencies also included easements along San Francisquito and Los Trancos creeks, but university officials have written to the federal agencies requesting a delay in some of those plans. Specifically, Stanford is asking NOAA to suspend processing of the permit application and USFWS to amend the university's application to exclude San Francisquito and Los Tranco creeks. This will allow a faculty and staff committee to complete its study of the future of Searsville Dam and Reservoir.

The university made the delay request in a Dec. 6 letter to the federal agencies, written by Catherine Palter, associate director for land use and environmental planning.

"We're disappointed not to include San Francisquito and Los Trancos creeks in the immediate implementation of the HCP," said Palter, "but this is the right thing to do. We need to keep all possible options on the table when it comes to the future of Searsville Dam. But we're very excited to proceed with other efforts for these species. This has been a long process, and we're eager to get going."

As a result, the university will implement the HCP in two phases. The second, involving the San Francisquito-Los Trancos Basin, will proceed after Searsville's future has been studied and more fully understood. During this time, Palter said the species in this area – particularly steelhead – will retain protection under the Endangered Species Act, and any projects in the basin will require permitting on a project-by-project basis if they could result in a take.

Searsville Dam

The Searsville Dam was built in 1892 by the for-profit Spring Valley Water Company and acquired by the university in 1919. Once used for recreation, Searsville Reservoir today suffers from sedimentation that has reduced the water quantity to 10 percent of its original capacity.

A committee that includes faculty members with expertise in such areas as natural resources law, environmental sustainability and hydrology has been studying the dam's future for more than a year. Key issues include the university's water supply needs, the environmental effects of the dam on habitats and wetlands, flood risks and the cost and effects of removing the reservoir's considerable sediment. Among the possible outcomes of the study are:

  • Continuing to allow the reservoir to fill with sediments and transition to a marsh and forested wetland.
  • Maintaining the dam through sediment removal.
  • Modifying the dam and reservoir to enable flood control, in addition to water supply and storage.
  • Removing the dam to allow Corte Madera Creek and other streams to flow downstream unimpeded.

Were the permanent conservation easement to be implemented on San Francisquito Creek as required by the HCP, possible future actions for Searsville Dam and Reservoir might have been precluded, according to Palter. Although the easement will be on hold, Palter said the university will continue to look for ways to enhance steelhead habitat in the creeks.