San Clemente Dam is almost completely filled in with silt and is worthless for water storage – or any other purpose. It is also structurally unsafe and at risk of failure during earthquakes or high flows. This morning (when this picture was taken) the dam was spilling about 1,000 cubic feet per second. On March 10, 1995, the dam survived a 16,000cfs flow that overtopped it completely.
Before the San Clemente Dam was built, the Carmel River had one of the healthiest steelhead populations in Central California. Unlike many coastal streams, where waterfalls block fish passage within a few miles of the ocean, steelhead could swim up the Carmel River for nearly 30 miles, gaining access to numerous higher altitude creeks with reliable year round flow. The San Clemente Dam ended all that.
Built in 1921, the San Clemente Dam brought the Monterey Peninsula the water it needed for golf courses, canneries and a wave of growth – but it cut the steelhead off from nearly all the river’s good fish habitat and spawning grounds. As water demand grew and storage capacity was lost to sedimentation, the Los Padres Dam was built further upstream. Although it too has lost most of its original storage capacity, it is the dam now used to supply the Monterey Peninsula with water. Removing the San Clemente dam would give steelhead access to many more miles of high quality creek and river than are available today, even though the Los Padres Dam would still exclude most fish from the river’s highest reaches.
Today, a long, steep fish ladder allows some fish to make it past the San Clemente Dam, but it’s still too tough a journey for the majority of fish. Since 1921, most steelhead have had to spawn as best they can directly below the dam.
Not surprisingly, the Carmel River steelhead population has taken a beating. From spawning runs of 12,000 fish or better, the population declined to the point where steelhead were nearly wiped out entirely by the droughts of the 1970s and 80s (access to high altitude tributaries with reliable year round flow is even more critical during times of drought). Trapped below the dam, large numbers of the remaining fish died as the lower reaches of the river ran dry. If not for the heroic efforts of the Carmel River Steelhead Association and others (who rescued fish from drying pools, set up hatchery operations, etc.) the Carmel River steelhead would likely have been lost forever.
Today, with a few hundred fish returning to the river each winter, the population is still far from secure. And with the dam completely useless for water storage – and a menace to downstream residents – getting rid of it seems like a pretty good idea. An innovative plan to reroute the river around the trapped sediment (eliminating the problems associated with sending huge pulses of silt downstream) has been worked out over the past few years, funding sources have been identified, grant money has been lined up, and — this week the dam’s owner, the California-American Water Co. suddenly announced that they want to drop this plan. Their new plan is to simply shore up the San Clemente Dam by building what amounts to a whole new dam against its downstream face.
This announcement has left most veterans of the Carmel River water debates scratching their heads. First, it seems pretty unlikely that the permitting agencies will allow Cal-Am to entomb their worthless dam in place. This means that all Cal-Am is likely to achieve is a few years of delay (while more steelhead die), followed by an order to remove the dam – by which time the current funding sources will have disappeared, leaving Cal-Am’s ratepayers to pick up the entire dam removal bill.
We’re only too well aware that Cal-Am doesn’t care what happens to their ratepayers. The question is what they expect to gain for themselves through this delay. If you’ve got an idea, let us know …
For more information see this article by Kera Abraham in the Monterey County Weekly
November 16, 2009 Update: Cal-Am reverses themselves and once again supports dam removal!