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Outdoor Filmmaker is Busting Dams Across the West

Ben Knight/DamNation Collection

Matt Stoecker is tearing down dams with the goal of restoring watersheds and fish friendly habitat.

Matt Stoecker, an ecologist and 2015 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year is fighting to dismantle what he calls “deadbeat dams” across the western United States.

Stoecker’s work was highlighted in the award-winning 2014 documentary, DamNation, which was produced by outdoor retailer Patagonia. He has used the film to kick start negotiations to remove several dams over the next few years, including Stanford University’s Lagunita Dam and the Matilija Dam in Ventura County, California.

While the accolades for his work might be new, his fight against dammed waterways can be traced back to childhood experiences fishing and exploring a creek in his hometown of Portola Valley, California. His exploration took him downstream where his clear, free-flowing creek turned into a stagnant reservoir, dammed up by the Searsville Dam, one of multiple dams operated by Stanford University. Taking the sight in, he watched as a large steelhead tried in vain to launch itself upstream to its ancestral spawning grounds, continually bashing itself against the concrete structure.

“I knew something was wrong. I was mad,” Stoecker says in an interview. “I still feel all of these emotions recalling that determined trout unable to get home.” Adding, “These fish were fighting extinction and couldn’t return home to spawn in the creek I’d grown up on. I felt a desire and obligation to fix this problem, to remove this dam, to welcome the annual return of steelhead back to their home stream.”

From there, the seed was planted and the fight began to bring down the structures that were holding back wildlife and damaging ecosystems in the name of energy, flood control and recreation. Stoecker recognizes that these dams once brought much needed resources to communities but says technological advance and climate change have rendered many of them obsolete where better alternatives exist.

The Searsville dam of his youth still stands, but plans are underway by Stanford University to mitigate the ecological problems caused by the dam. Stanford’s proposal isn’t to tear down the dam, but to construct a tunnel at its base to help release the long building sediment deposits. A alternative plan is to allow the reservoir fill completely with silt, creating new wetlands and installing fish ladders to help in steelhead migration.

That is not good enough for Stoecker and his supporters, who advocate for the complete removal of the dam, with the end goal of restoring the watershed. He calls for Stanford “to do the right thing, practice the environmental stewardship lessons they teach, and remove this unnecessary and destructive dam.”

The results of previous dam removals support Stoeckers goals. Recovery to the watersheds after the 2014 removal the Glines Canyon Dam and the Elwha Dam on Washington States Elwha River already shows the river ecology rebounding. Within a year of the dams destruction, fish were headed up river and the years of built-up silt had moved down to the rivers mouth.

“While making the documentary DamNation, I was snorkeling and filming huge Chinook salmon trapped in a pool below Elwha Dam,” Stoecker said. “After the dam was removed, co-producer Rummel and I returned to film at the nearly invisible former dam site. We cheered with arms raised overhead as massive Chinook launched through the air over a cascade where the dam once stood, and swam upstream to their ancestral home that hadn’t seen them for over a century.

“Nothing in my professional career has been more rewarding than witnessing these barriers come down and watching a river, its wildlife and its communities reconnect with each other,” he adds. “[It’s] like going back in time and also seeing a better future.”

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Outdoor Filmmaker is Busting Dams Across the West