Slowly rising lagoon
A few days ago, everything was working out perfectly for the Carmel River’s remnant steelhead population. With the San Clemente Dam gone, the door was open for more young steelhead smolts to safely reach the lagoon, and eventually the sea, than had been possible for many years. Then, relatively gentle rains put enough flow in the river to provide easy fish passage from the higher elevation tributaries to the lagoon, but not enough to breach the high summer sandbar at the lagoon mouth. Behind the bar, the slowly filling lagoon was becoming an ideal habitat for young steelhead to undergo the rapid growth and physiological changes necessary to survive at sea.
Without human interference, it might have been many days or even weeks before the water overtopped the bar. During this time, the lagoon’s deep water would have protected the smolts from predators, while insects flooded out by the rising water would have provided abundant food. When a natural breach eventually occurred, it would likely have been at the northern end of the beach; a location where a rapid draining of the lagoon – which washes unprepared smolts out to sea – would be far less likely.
But houses were stupidly built on the lagoon bottom back in the 1950’s, and the “Ecosystem Protective Barrier” planned to protect those houses is, after more than 20 years of planning, still just talk. So Public Works brought out the dozers and lowered the bar to a level where it would breach before flooding began. Rather than lowering the bar at the fish-friendly northern end, they made the cut at the southern end, as they have been doing since the river, flowing through a northern cut, removed a chunk of the State Park parking lot back in 2011.
Rising water begins filling the streets of Carmel’s Lower Ninth Ward
This March 25, 2011 flow peaked at around 7,000 cfs, and removed a portion of the parking lot. Ever since, Public Works has exclusively focused on breaching the bar at its southern end. The hope was that a granite ledge there might prevent rapid draining, but the cut has quickly migrated off the ledge and rapidly drained the lagoon nearly every time it’s been tried. Last night was no exception.
The desire to protect homes from flooding is easy to understand. What is harder to understand is the willingness to risk the very survival of the severely threatened Carmel River steelhead simply to avoid the small possibility that an old parking lot might be damaged.
There’s also concern that a northern breach might lead to the river undercutting the dune supporting Scenic Rd. Doesn’t look like the waves are going to need the river’s help with that, though.
When the lagoon breached through the southern cut last night, draining was predictably rapid and catastrophic. Unprepared smolts were likely washed out to sea and the shallow lagoon that remains simply cannot match a deep lagoon when it comes to protecting and feeding any smolts that remain.
Water approaching the top of the lowered bar Sunday afternoon
Freshly emptied lagoon Monday morning, as seen from the high water mark at the edge of the parking lot. If it hadn’t been high tide the water would have been lower still.
An ideal habitat for growing fish on Sunday
Not so much on Monday
Until the waves rebuild a bar across the channel left behind by last night’s breaching, the lagoon will remain at sea level
A variety of officials were out on the bar this morning surveying the damage. At first it looked like National Marine Fisheries would order the breach filled in again in what would probably have been a too little, too late effort to prevent complete dewatering at low tide. This plan was eventually dropped and it will now be up to the waves to rebuild the bar.
So much for the fish.
When it comes to upholding the Endangered Species Act and protecting steelhead, the ongoing shenanigans at the Carmel River mouth have lowered the bar in more ways than one.
Like the sign says…
For more information see our agonizingly detailed history of human interaction with the Carmel River Lagoon.