Steelhead Lose Again at Carmel River Mouth


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.


4 Responses to Steelhead Lose Again at Carmel River Mouth

  1. Brian LeNeve says:

    Hello I have received your blog from friends in the past and just now became a member.

    My name is Brian LeNeve and I am president of the Carmel River Steelhead Association. I would like to print your article in our next newsletter (with proper credit to you). Would that be OK with you.


  2. xasauan says:

    Absolutely. Please do. And thanks for your many, many years of hard work to keep the Carmel River steelhead alive.

  3. Thomas Pelikan says:

    xasauan, thanks so much for putting this out there.
    Yes, once again nature looses.
    Tom Pelikan, CRSA member

  4. Verna Jigour says:

    Carmel River sandbar breached yesterday, Dec. 18th, apparently naturally. Not sure exactly what time it happened but I’m guessing around high tide at 1 pm. And it did not take the apparent intended route carved out for it last June (here Ocean, come this way), instead breaking closer to the south bank, about where it was last winter.

    I live on Monte Verde, a couple blocks from the lagoon. Yesterday morning I was standing looking out from my second story window and thought to myself, Wow, I never noticed I could see the lagoon from here (this being only my second winter here) and I was seeing quite a bit of blue water through the tree tops. Not there this morning. Also, we noticed more than the usual amount of county and state park truck traffic past here yesterday.

    I didn’t walk down to check it out until today. Yes indeed, the water is flowing swiftly out the river mouth, sharp embankments cut into the sand on either side, a couple surfers there midday. At least there is more sand left under the stairs descending from Carmel Meadows vicinity than before they did the beach realignment project last June, so something was gained through that effort.

    There is a clear line of dead cattails and kelp on the beach marking how high the lagoon rose before the breach. Definitely would have inundated much of the state beach parking lot, though there is no indication of any sand undermining there. In fact the beach looks placid except for that line of demarcation. Some residual traces of flooding remained today at end of River Park Place, but not on Monte Verde.

    No indication of any heavy equipment on the beach and some county workers piling sandbags at the end of my street who were also working there yesterday confirmed it was a natural breach. Just did a Google News search on “Carmel River” and so far there seem no reports. FYI

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