The Carmel River presents a remarkable test case for a messed-up river,” said geologist Robert Curry back in 1981. Now, journalist Ray March makes that quote the opening line of his new book River in Ruin: The Story of the Carmel River, which portrays a river that’s been dammed, diverted, and leaned on for at least 130 years. Nearly 20 years after Curry’s assessment, the nonprofit American Rivers [http://www.amrivers.org/] listed the river as one of the nation’s ten most endangered. Now it looks like the river–the Monterey Peninsula’s only source of fresh water–is finally catching a break with several large restoration projects.
The removal of the river’s San Clemente Dam will be the largest such project in California. In October 2011, the state authorized $25 million in project funds from the California Coastal Conservancy, and work will start in summer 2013, once officials have raised the final $9 million of the $83 million cost. Built in 1920, the 106-foot-tall dam once held back 1,450 acre-feet of water. Today, 90 percent of the reservoir is filled with sediment, and in 1992 the state declared the dam seismically unsafe. To safely contain the sediment, engineers plan to blast through the ridge between the Carmel River and San Clemente Creek to permanently divert a half mile of the river to the creek, which joins the main river near the dam.
The demand on the river reaches back 130 years, when Charles Crocker’s Hotel Del Monte made the first large-scale water withdrawals, writes March. Then came the sardine canneries that siphoned 20 million gallons of water a day during their peak, and the Peninsula’s massive golf and tourism industries, which take a major cut in the summer when the river is least able to meet the need.
More help will come from the State Water Resources Control Board’s ruling that dam owner California American Water, which sells water on the Monterey Peninsula, must stop taking more than its legal annual allotment of 3.3 thousand acre-feet of river water by 2016 (it now takes at least twice that). To make up the deficit, the water company is building a desalination plant and an aquifer storage project in Seaside.
Another project being considered for the mouth of the river may help the river’s steelhead, whose numbers have decreased by 90 percent. For years, the county has lessened flood danger for local residents by breaching a natural berm that forms the Carmel River Lagoon. Public officials have ordered the breaching stopped to give young steelhead a chance to grow stronger before going to sea. The Carmel River Watershed Conservancy is studying the feasibility of an innovative vinyl-sided seawall to protect houses while leaving the lagoon in place.
The Carmel River has worked hard to fuel the economy and lifestyle of this world-renowned coastal community; now it looks as if the people are recognizing the need to return the favor.
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Veteran environmental activist, writer, editor, publisher, educator, and coastal wetlands scientist Phyllis Faber has made countless contributions to the Bay Area environmental movement.