In his 1945 novel, ‘Cannery Row,’ John Steinbeck wrote “The Carmel is a lovely little river. It isn’t very long but in its course it has everything a river should have.” Well, almost everything. Even in Steinbeck’s day it certainly didn’t have the annual runs of native steelhead it historically had.
Beginning in the Santa Lucia Mountains, the 36-mile Carmel River, along the central coast of California in Monterey County, flows northwest through the Carmel Valley before emptying into the Pacific. Prior to the 1920s, an estimated 20,000 South-Central Coast steelhead annually spawned up the river. Now an average of 338 spawners make it past the San Clemente Dam each year, and perhaps 500 on a good year.
But that is all about to change.
On Thursday, June 21, at a meeting in San Francisco, the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) voted 4-1 in approval of a plan that will lead to the removal of the antiquated San Clemente dam on the Carmel River, identified by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) as the most critical stream on the Central Coast of California for restoring South-Central Coast steelhead.
“This project is a laudatory example of innovative thinking as it provides a creative solution to a host of problems,” says PUC Commissioner Catherine Sandoval. “It is a historic opportunity to protect people from potential flood damage, meet earthquake safety guidelines, protect endangered species, and provide significant environmental benefits to the public and wildlife.”
Built in 1921, the San Clemente dam, located 18 miles upstream from the ocean, is now 90 percent silted in and no longer provides any water supply function as it once did. In 1992, state officials determined that the dam is in danger of collapsing in an earthquake and flooding the lower valley.
California American Water Company (Cal-Am) , which operates the dam, conducted extensive studies to address the issue and determined that removal of the dam was the best option; however, it would cost more than $80 million — nearly twice the expense of other feasible, but less desirable options. NMFS and the California Coastal Conservancy began negotiating with Cal-Am to support the dam removal alternative, reaching out to other stakeholders for support, and a remarkable coalition evolved between local and state conservation groups, government agencies, and business interests all committed to taking out San Clemente Dam. One of TU’s strongest local partners, the Carmel River Steelhead Association (CRSA), has been a member of this informal coalition for a decade. In 2006, TU also joined this collaborative effort.
By 2011, the coalition had constructed a framework of federal and state grants and other funding sources to cover the extra money required to undertake the dam removal, and also resolve liability, access, and river restoration issues. Last week, PUC approved of the coalition’s plans. The project will be launched in September, 2012, and it will take about three years to remove the dam.
In addition to opening up and improving some 25 miles of high quality spawning habitat for the Carmel River steelhead, removal of the San Clemente Dam will also be an historic precedent, as it will be the largest dam ever taken down in California.
“This PUC decision affirms that the best ‘fix’ for the Carmel River is also the best thing for Cal-Am’s water customers, and recognizes both the historic precedent for this dam removal and the exemplary public-private partnership that has been built to support the project,” says TU California Field Director Sam Davidson. “TU is proud to support the Carmel River Steelhead Association in its decades-long effort to restore the native steelhead run on the Carmel River, and to have contributed to the dam removal partnership and this excellent outcome.”
In the near future, Steinbeck’s quote will ring more true than ever, and the Carmel will be closer to having “everything a river should have,” including improved runs of spawning South-Central Coast steelhead.