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Dam Removal Critical for Safety and Fish

Doug McKnight

Credit Doug McKnight
Vegetation grows in the sediment built up behind the San Clemente Dam.

The San Clemente Dam will be removed from the Carmel River.  Wednesday the Monterey County Planning Commission approved the project.  Removal starts this summer.  The dam was built nearly a hundred years ago but now represents a threat to both those living down river and to a specific species of fish.

Just seven miles southeast of Carmel Valley Village the roar of water spilling over the San Clemente Dam overwhelms the tranquility of an otherwise pristine wilderness.  Richard Svindland walks across the top of the dam. He’s Vice President of Engineering for California American Water. He points to a small pond formed by the Carmel River behind the dam. “It used to hold about 1500 acre feet; approximately 95% of that is all silted up,” said Svindland.  The 100-year-old dam now holds back just 70 acre feet of water and two and a half million cubic yards of silt.

Six years ago, the California Division of Dam Safety raised concerns that a major earthquake or flood could cause that wall of mud to swallow homes and communities down river. It ordered Cal Am to reinforce the dam.   That’s when scientists and environmental groups saw an opportunity to not only solve this safety issue but also help save a vanishing fish population. Steelhead once numbered in the thousands in the Carmel River, but today have been reduced to just a few hundred. The trout are considered threatened under the endangered species act.  “The dam serves no purpose, it is totally filled with sediment and it is a partial passage barrier, for juvenile migration of the Steelhead,” said Joyce Ambrosisus with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Fisheries.

So environmental groups began looking at alternatives.  “Our determination was that removal of the dam was by far the best solution,” said Lorin Letendre, President of the Carmel Watershed Conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the Steelhead and the area around  the river.  But it turns out removing the dam will cost significantly more than just reinforcing it  $84-million versus $49-million.  So in order to save the Steelhead, the state agency dedicated to protecting coastal areas, the California State Coastal Conservancy, is raising the $35-million difference through grants and private donations.

Back at the San Clemente Dam, Cal-Am’s Richard Svinland says this will be unlike any other dam removal. “What makes this unique from other projects is we are going to reroute the river around the sediment. Then we are going to stabilize that sediment so that it can never move,” said Svinland.  Once the three year project is complete, he says the area will then be left to grow back to its natural state and the land will be donated to the Bureau of Land Management.  “Our goal will be for a hiker walking up the valley they would never know a dam was here,” said Svinland.

That is also the dream of author Ray March who writes lovingly about his childhood on the Monterey Peninsula in his book River In Ruin. For March the Carmel River is a spiritual place. “ It was a playground. It was a recreation. It was a place to meditate. It was a place to rejoice,” said March.  He’s not the only author to write fondly about the river. March reads from John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row,  “the Carmel is a lovely little river. It isn’t long but in its course it has everything a river should have.”

Returning the Carmel to that lovely little river will likely take more than the dam removal.  Cal-Am also has to stop over pumping the river, which it plans to do with its proposed Monterey Peninsula Water Supply Project

Doug joined KAZU in 2004 as Development Director overseeing fundraising and grants. He was promoted to General Manager in 2009 and is currently retired and working part time in membership fundraising and news reporting at KAZU.