Watershed: A Moment with Matt Stoecker
Matt Stoecker has a singular focus: removing dams from rivers. At 36, he’s knocked out a couple dozen of the 84,000 dams in our country.
He sees a dam as a literal representation of mankind in discord with his environment, at his own expense and that of other species. As evidence, China’s Three Gorges Dam displaced 1.2 million people, 13 cities, untold amounts of wildlife, and has submerged numerous factories and waste sites in its waters. It will have the world’s largest hydroelectric capacity when it is fully operational (Death Star wording intended) next month.
As we chat and explore the Ventura River, Stoecker’s morality emerges as something not learned but almost hardwired into him. His sense of action in the name of what’s right is just this side of involuntary. He says he wasn’t doing the kind of restoration work he wanted to do off-handedly, as though breathing life into an ecosystem is a simple certainty in one’s life that comes after getting your driver license and graduating high school.
“Science is good, but without action, it doesn’t really mean much. Plus it’s necessary to stir this shit up,” he says in regard to challenging dam owners.
He swears in a disarming way, and there are hints of a Southern gentleman in his mannerisms. He says things like, “They’re good folks,” and when he calls his wife darlin’, it leaves you listening for a drawl. He makes a simple, incisive statement as we climb over a crumbling corner of the Matilija dam: “It’s funny they would put dam builders in charge of a restoration project. That’s like having an asphalt company do your landscaping.”
Stoecker picks a river, starts where it meets the sea, and walks uphill until he reaches the inland terminus, evaluating fish barriers and forming a plan to undo them. His thesis project at University of California, Santa Barbara, assessing watersheds from Jalama to Rincon, landed him enough business to start his own consultancy, Stoecker Ecological. Whether it was timing or prescience, he nailed a specific, unfulfilled need that coincided with his childhood love of rock hopping in riverbeds and sneaking up on fish all day.
It’s not surprising then that he married Claire Chouinard, daughter of dam-removal advocate and Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, whose likeminded views have fostered Stoecker’s dedication. Stoecker has been working on projects that require consensus-building long enough to know that effective communication goes farther than data. His reports are filled with photos — and with funding from Patagonia, he is producing the film DamNation, due out end of the year.
Though he’s started a grassroots conservation movement, BeyondSearsvilleDam.org, and endeavors to raise awareness, he’s not hip on Facebook. After he revealed his dream of taking his computer out back and shooting it, I didn’t ask about Twitter. As he talks about the Horse Creek dam demolition, a “super fun” job that involved explosives, it’s obvious that in addition to all the altruism, he really is, if not a man at play, one in love with his work.
[The interview was conducted while hiking throughout the Ventura River ecosystem, on March 24.]
Ted Reckas: Why are dams bad for rivers?
Matt Stoecker: They back up reservoirs that take it from a cold flowing stream to a stagnant body of water that bakes in the sun. So it heats up, the dissolved oxygen goes way down; they have algae blooms that can be toxic and kill fish. Then they release that flow down stream. And the reservoirs harbor all these nonnative species like bass and bullfrogs that spill downstream and end up eating native species.
But instead of solving the problem with the dams, we start these huge aquaculture setups and say we’ll just make salmon even though it’s incredibly costly. If we just restored our rivers they would produce a huge amount of salmon for free, and it would be way more productive. About 140 species benefit from salmon in the watershed. There is an annual pulse of nutrients from the ocean, swimming its way up into these watersheds to the Rocky Mountains and dispersing millions of tons of fertilizer for all these other species, and these dams have severed that connection and just destroyed entire ecosystems.
TR: When these dams were being put in, did the builders not understand how ecosystems worked?
MS: They didn’t. And I don’t think those guys were bad people. Ecosystem wasn’t even a word people were using back then. A lot of these dams were built coming out of the Great Depression. Roosevelt was putting a lot of people to work, and they just found spots that were ideal locations to build dams, and even if they weren’t needed, they built them. Dams on the Columbia, like Bonneville, helped us win WWII. The whole military complex was pumping out planes and trains and stuff from the hydropower from these dams.
TR: What was your childhood like?
MS: I have two older brothers. We’d grab our fishing rods and disappear in the creek by where we live. One of the main projects I’m working on now is called Beyond Searsville Dam. One day, we were running down the creek, and we kept going further and finally got to a spot where the creek opened up into this big brown reservoir. And we were like, “What the hell is this?” We walked around it and went down to the base of the dam and were getting ready to fish, and this 30-inch steelhead jumps out of the water and slams its head into the concrete dam and bounces off it backwards. And we were like, “What the hell was that?” because we just caught little 7, 8, 10-inch trout up above. And it jumped again, bounced off, and I realized something was definitely wrong. That was when the light went on for me. This dam had destroyed the creek I grew up on that I thought was pristine and awesome.
I eventually started this coalition after trying to work with Stanford through the local watershed council, and we’re going after this dam, which Stanford owns. They’re preaching that they are one of the most green, sustainable campuses in the country, and they have this dam they don’t release water from for parts of the year, for fish downstream. It destroyed the salmon run, so we’re going to ensure this stops.
I’ve been doing this for 12 years now, and we’re getting close. So some folks at Stanford are definitely not big fans of me. (Laughs) My kids will not be getting into Stanford.
[In April 2011 Stanford announced an internal committee would craft a plan for the dam. In an email, a Stanford spokesperson said the dam was beneficial to downstream steelhead habitat. Stanford’s Director of Community Relations said Searsville Reservoir has virtually no effect on downstream water flow, and the value of the steelhead habitat above the dam is undetermined. Stoecker refutes these claims with scientific studies, historical anecdotes and personal observations.]
TR: What did you do after college?
MS: I flew to Alaska to work for a fly-fishing guide service. They started a new deal in a remote part of Mongolia, and I said, “Yeah I don’t even know where that is. Sounds awesome.” But it didn’t feel like I was doing enough. I felt like I needed to jump in and try to reverse some of the damage, you know?
TR: Where did you witness the damage?
MS: Mainly California. Alaska was awesome to show you how abundant intact rivers are. Seeing a creek 6 feet wide, solid red with sockeye, their backs half out of the water, powering up it, and eagles and bears, and the whole thing being fed by these fish, made me realize that California was like that back in the day. And all the dams and shit we built destroyed it. But also, if you take this stuff down, the fish come right back. Now I’m more psyched on that than catching fish. Seeing something come back like that is way more rewarding.
TR: Was Mongolia relatively untouched, too?
MS: Mongolia was great because there was not just amazing wildlife, but nomadic families still cruising around living a traditional way of life. They’re the friendliest people I’ve ever met. You could get dropped out of a plane into the middle of nowhere in Mongolia, and they’d just invite you into their yurts and take care of you.
TR: Would you call yourself an environmentalist?
(Coughs) Well … that term has a lot of good and bad meanings to people, but, we depend on the environment to live, and I’m a fan of having a healthy place to live, so if that makes me an environmentalist then, yeah.
I grew up hunting and fishing. There are a lot of environmentalists that think you’re torturing animals and a murderer, and I think they don’t recognize that modern conservation originated from people who hunted and fished. Native Americans were the first conservationists that took their fish nets out after they got enough fish and let the rest go. There wouldn’t be wetlands left in North American if it wasn’t for duck hunters. So I don’t want to be put in the same category as some group like PETA.
TR: What about the work they do getting video of the hideous stuff that goes on in slaughterhouses?
MS: No, no, they do some good work for sure, but they’re also opposed to eradicating non-native pigs from the Channel Islands that are destroying the ecosystem because they don’t want anything to die. They place an equal value on every animal regardless of where it is native to, which I don’t agree with because that’s not really supported by the science of restoration.
Some of the best projects I’ve done have been with farmers, and they’re always skeptical of the government or an environmentalist. It’s starting to change. There are some good folks that are ranching and realize you can pass it on to your kids in better shape, and the value of land is going to go up. I think people are waking up to the fact that you can get what you want and not fuck everything up.
TR: Are you political?
MS: I vote for environmental issues, so you know what camp that puts me in. It’s too bad, too, because the Republican Party doesn’t give a shit anymore about environmental issues, but going back to Teddy Roosevelt, Republicans were some of the first conservationists. It’s really a shame it’s gotten to the point it is now.
TR: When you talk to people, do you keep it nonpolitical?
MS: Yeah, because is shouldn’t be political that you want healthy rivers in your area and want fish to come back.