Frequently Asked Questions


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What are the Searsville Dam and Reservoir, and how does Stanford use them?

Searsville Dam and Reservoir are located in the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve in the San Francisquito Creek watershed, adjacent to Portola Valley and Woodside, west of Interstate 280. The dam was built in 1892 by the for-profit Spring Valley Water Company and acquired by the university in 1919. The reservoir created by the dam was once a popular recreational area. The Stanford Board of Trustees formally designated Jasper Ridge as a biological preserve in 1973 and in 1975 ended recreational use of Searsville Reservoir. Today, sedimentation has reduced the reservoir to less than 10 percent of its original water capacity. The reservoir is one of several sources of non-potable water used at Stanford for landscape irrigation, agriculture and fire protection. The ongoing drought has interrupted water diversion since the spring of 2013.

Searsville Reservoir is a major feature of the 1,189-acre Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, playing a key role in the preserve's research and education mission. It provides opportunities for researchers and students to study a range of globally and locally important habitats, environmental issues and engineering topics.

What are Stanford's plans for the future of Searsville Dam?

Because of the extent and rate of sedimentation that will lead to the eventual loss of the reservoir and the importance of all of the various hydrologic and natural habitat issues involved, Stanford is conducting an in-depth, expert comprehensive review of all issues and all possible actions related to the dam's future. Stanford believes that only a careful, thoughtful analysis of the complex, intersecting issues will provide a proper road map for the future of this facility and its interrelationships with the biological preserve, the species that thrive there and the entire San Francisquito watershed.

A faculty and staff committee that includes Stanford scholars who specialize in engineering, environmental science, history and law has been studying alternatives for the future of Searsville Dam since 2011. The study was spurred primarily by the increasing sedimentation in the reservoir, but the committee is investigating all of the complex and interrelated factors, including:

  • The effect of possible future dam options on research and academic programs at the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve
  • The role of Searsville in the university's sustainable long-term water supply and storage needs
  • Potential impacts of various actions on biological diversity, including 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, especially concerning San Francisquito Creek
  • The cost and impact of possible sediment removal, disposal and ongoing management

Stanford has retained a world-renowned engineering firm, URS, to provide consulting services addressing the complex engineering and biological aspects of the study. URS has extensive expertise in these areas, as indicated by its recent involvement in the San Clemente Dam project on the Carmel River.

What are the long-term options for the dam?

The Searsville Steering Committee is studying a number of general possible options for Searsville Dam:

  • Continuing to allow the reservoir to fill with sediment and transition to a marsh and forested wetland
  • Maintaining the dam and reservoir through sediment removal
  • Modifying the dam and reservoir to enable flood mitigation and management, in addition to water supply and storage
  • Removing the dam to allow Corte Madera Creek and other streams to flow downstream unimpeded
  • Considering other issues related to Searsville, including alternatives to the current water supply and storage facilities, provision of additional fish passage, the change in the amount of sediment going downstream and options for removing accumulated sediment from 12 decades of deposition.

Is Stanford diverting water from Searsville Lake and San Francisquito Creek to irrigate its golf course and campus landscaping, to the detriment of fish?

Stanford is not presently diverting water at all, and has not diverted water from Searsville Lake since March 2013 and from San Francisquito Creek since early April 2014. Stanford's permits require a minimum flow of water in the creeks for the passage of fish before any water can be diverted. Irrigation on campus, which has been reduced because of the drought, currently comes from water stored in Felt Lake in the Stanford foothills and from Stanford's wells.

How does Searsville Dam fit into Stanford's larger Habitat Conservation Plan?

More than a decade ago, Stanford began working with the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to create a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) under the auspices of the Endangered Species Act. An HCP allows a landholder to create long-term conservation plans, rather than relying on short-term, limited mitigations for specific projects and ongoing activities that might affect threatened or endangered species. At Stanford, those types of projects include road and utilities operation and maintenance, field research, construction and conservation activities.

Operation and maintenance activities at Searsville Dam and Reservoir were originally included in the draft HCP. But the complexity of the issues involved in the dam's future led the university to withdraw these activities at the dam and reservoir from the final HCP and to create the steering committee to conduct the Searsville Alternatives Study. For more information on the plan see

What are the issues involving steelhead and Searsville Dam?

The San Francisquito Creek watershed continues to support a healthy steelhead population. Steelhead, which are considered threatened, are the anadromous form of rainbow trout, meaning they hatch and spend the early part of their lives in freshwater creeks such as San Francisquito, live most of their lives at sea and return to their freshwater creek of origin to spawn.

Stanford has contributed to improvements in habitat for steelhead and other species in the watershed and on Stanford lands. For instance, Stanford's Steelhead Habitat Enhancement Project, created in 2006, has improved the efficiency of a water diversion facility located on Los Trancos Creek and increased bypass flows to improve steelhead habitat.

What is Stanford's response to suits filed by Our Children's Earth and the Ecological Rights Foundation against the university and the National Marine Fisheries Service, claiming that Searsville Dam and Stanford water diversions threaten steelhead trout?

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) conducted a thorough evaluation and issued permits for Stanford that do not harm and in fact benefit the fish in Los Trancos Creek and the San Francisquito watershed.

The 2008 approval by NMFS supported construction of a new fish ladder that permits the migration of steelhead trout up Los Trancos Creek. It was the result of a multi-year process involving careful analysis and evaluation of the project, as well as the proposed water diversions by Stanford. Specific minimum flows in the creek are required by NMFS, for the benefit of steelhead, before Stanford can divert water. Upstream migration is not blocked, and in fact the Steelhead Enhancement Project created more effective upstream migration.

The university believes that it is in full compliance with the Endangered Species Act and all local, state and federal laws in its operations of Searsville Dam and Reservoir, and that Stanford's past projects, the HCP and the Searsville Study reflect Stanford's commitment to conserving habitats for protected species. Stanford is in regular contact with state and federal wildlife agencies and submits information about the Searsville Dam operations to various agencies. Staff from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Division of Safety of Dams visit the dam on a regular basis.

What about the upstream wetlands habitat created by the dam over more than 120 years?

The biodiversity of the area altered by the construction of Searsville Dam is among the key issues under review by the Searsville Steering Committee. According to the Jasper Ridge Advisory Committee's 2007 position statement on Searsville, the lake "supports a range of habitats, including the reservoir itself, the associated wetlands, and all of the habitats with species that use the reservoir and wetlands for feeding or breeding. Searsville Lake has a diverse aquatic community. It is a key habitat for migratory and breeding birds and provides important foraging resources for bats. In addition, the reservoir helps maintain shallow water tables that support wetland habitat on the Corte Madera and Sausal Creek alluvial floodplains."

Is Searsville Dam safe?

Yes. Searsville Dam is regularly inspected by the state's Division of Safety of Dams and is considered to be safe for seismic, sediment and flood-load conditions. That agency reiterated the dam's safety as recently as Dec. 28, 2012, in a letter that says: "The dam is considered safe for continued use and no additional engineering or geologic analyses involving the dam, abutments, or foundation are judged necessary at this time." The 68-foot-high concrete gravity dam, comprised of large concrete blocks and a stout cross section, according to the state "is considered stable for the static, seismic and flood loading conditions and has an outlet capacity capable of meeting our requirements."

Who will make the final decision about the future of Searsville Dam, and when?

Stanford anticipates completing the initial set of studies in 2014, with the intention of forwarding recommended courses of action to President John Hennessy and Provost John Etchemendy by the end of 2014. Any project or actions proposed by Stanford will then need to be more specifically designed and submitted for environmental review and permitting by multiple applicable agencies at the federal, state and local levels.

Who are the members of the Searsville Steering Committee?

The committee is co-chaired by Jean McCown, Stanford director of community relations, and Chris Field, faculty director of Jasper Ridge and professor of biology and of environmental Earth system science. The Committee includes prominent faculty: Jeffrey Koseff, co-director of the Woods Institute for the Environment; Pamela Matson, dean of the School of Earth Sciences; Buzz Thompson Jr., professor of natural resources law and co-director of the Woods Institute for the Environment; David Freyberg, professor of civil engineering and hydrology; and Richard White, professor of history. Staff members include senior leadership and specialists in conservation, land use, environmental sustainability and water conservation.

How is Stanford keeping neighboring communities and the general public informed?

Stanford is working closely with local, state and federal agencies on its study of Searsville Dam and Reservoir, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, California State Water Resources Control Board and the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority. Since the fall of 2011, Stanford has also sponsored two community workshop meetings that drew such organizations as the Crescent Park Neighborhood Association, the Committee for Green Foothills, CalTrout, Santa Clara Audubon, American Rivers and Beyond Searsville Dam.

Stanford also is working with an advisory committee of external representatives to provide input to the steering committee's evaluation process. That group continues to meet.

More information on Stanford and the Searsville Dam:

Updated last on August 21, 2014