Summer solstice portends a better future for Carmel River steelhead

June 21 is the summer solstice, the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. The solstices have long been considered momentous events, auguring the future and a time for celebration and reflection. This year, June 21 was indeed a day of import, as elected officials, local power brokers, business executives, government agency representatives, and conservation leaders gathered for the ceremonial groundbreaking of the San Clemente Dam Removal and River Reroute Project in Carmel Valley, California.
Removal of San Clemente Dam will open up 25 miles of spawning and rearing habitat for steelhead. It will be the largest dam ever taken down in California.
The groundbreaking ceremony was hosted by the California-American Water Company (Cal-Am). Cal-Am owns San Clemente Dam and is only too happy to get rid of the 92-year old structure, which is useless for water supply, could collapse in a “significant seismic event,” and contributes to all sorts of environmental problems in the Carmel River watershed.
It has taken more than two decades for Cal-Am and project partners to get the project designed, analyzed, approved and funded.
TU’s stake here is the run of native steelhead in the Carmel River. When I was a boy growing up in Carmel Valley in the 1970s, the Carmel River steelhead run was still strong – in fact, anglers would line the banks of the “honey holes” asses-to-elbows, and in between the winter storms you could see the bright chromers muscling in waves, dozens and dozens of fish at a time, up the river.
The run today is a shadow of its former self. 500 adults making it over San Clemente Dam constitutes a “good” year.
The decline of the Carmel River steelhead run is due to a variety of factors, but primary among these is over-draft of water from the river and its aquifer. There is simply not enough water in the river, at the right times, for ideal steelhead passage, spawning and rearing.
The National Marine Fisheries Service has determined that the Carmel River, despite its degraded habitat, is a Core 1 (highest) priority watershed for recovery of the South Central Coastal Distinct Populations Segment (DPS) of steelhead.
The Carmel River is the principal water source for Cal-Am and its customers on the fabled Monterey Peninsula, one of California’s most popular tourist destinations. In 1995, the State Water Board ordered Cal-Am to reduce its reliance on the Carmel River and to mitigate the effects of its pumping on steelhead. Cal-Am has until 2016 to find and develop alternative water sources.
Since 2006, TU has been a partner in the San Clemente Dam Removal and River Reroute Project, helping to gain approval from regulatory agencies and raise money. Other agencies and organizations, including the California Coastal Conservancy, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Nature Conservancy, the Carmel River Steelhead Association (CRSA) and the Carmel River Watershed Conservancy (CRWC), have played primary roles in the project.
By 2011, this coalition had constructed a framework of federal and state grants and other funding sources to cover the extra costs of taking down the dam (rather than repairing and upgrading it), and had largely resolved liability, access, and river restoration issues.
Exactly one year ago, on June 21, 2012, I joined spokespersons from CRSA and CRWC in testifying before the State Public Utilities Commission in support of Cal-Am’s plan for paying its share ($49 million) of the project’s total cost of $84 million. The Commission subsequently approved Cal-Am’s proposal by a 4-1 vote.
More recently, TU’s Central Coast Steelhead Coordinator, Tim Frahm, and I attended two meetings of the Monterey County Planning Commission. Approval of the Planning Commission was the final hurdle for the project. Tim testified eloquently about living near the Carmel River, and looking forward to taking his young daughter into the restored habitat above San Clemente Dam to watch spawning steelhead. The Planning Commission, after redesign of the access route for construction vehicles to the dam, voted unanimously to approve the project.
There wasn’t any actual ground broken during the recent ceremony, but a local Native American spiritual leader did play a ceremonial flute and bless the project, and perhaps a dozen dignitaries spoke eloquently about the process and partnerships that had moved the project past many significant hurdles and setbacks to get it to this point: all requisite permits are now in hand, and San Clemente Dam will be removed from the Carmel River beginning this fall.
The dam removal and river reroute project is expected to be completed in three years. We have worked a long time to take this big step towards a self-sustaining wild steelhead run on the Carmel River. Three more short years until the steelies migrate easily past the dam site and begin to utilize more fully the habitat upstream. I guess I can wait that long.


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