By Hayden Payne
Alternative Spring Break 2017
This report was produced during the 2017 Alternative Spring Break course Environmental Policy in California. During winter quarter, students learned about environmental policy in California from a variety of Stanford faculty. Subsequently, over the course of spring break, the class traveled to Monterey and Sacramento to meet with policymakers, stakeholders, and visit energy and water facilities.
Thirty-six miles from its point of origin in Central California, the Carmel River yawns into a marshy lagoon and carves through the sand dunes to spill into the Pacific Ocean. On a surface level, the Carmel River could appear to be a largely unimportant California river. It does not compare to the famous Sacramento River in size or significance. It would not even outrank the sprawling Salinas River, which runs through its own valley just north of Carmel and Monterey. But the Carmel River is important. Like its sister in Salinas, the Carmel River provides water and wetland to the houses and some farms that lie along the river banks. The riparian ecosystem provides a home base for endangered and threatened species like the steelhead trout, the California red-legged frog, and Smith's blue butterfly. Throughout the Carmel Valley, the river carries sediment downstream and, with enough power behind its flow, finally breaks through an earthen barrier at the beachfront to deposit the valley dirt into the sea.
Back in 1921, the San Clemente Dam was constructed to trap and harness the water of the Carmel River. For decades, the large reservoir behind the dam's curve held thousands of gallons of river water as a reserve water supply. But like most dams, San Clemente brought a host of issues to the Carmel River and the surrounding valley. As the water built up in the reservoir, sediment also accumulated from the upper river. The growing layer of dirt behind the dam presented a threat to the reservoir in terms of reduced water quality, reduced water capacity, and a greater possibility of flooding.
Downstream of the dam, with a smaller flow, the river no longer consistently broke the beach barrier to reach the ocean. In fact, the barrier grew bigger, because the limited water flow deposited all the sediment at the foot of the barrier. So the marshy lagoon that filled the backyards of Carmel residents became a huge flood risk in the rare times of heavy rains. The dam also hurt the steelhead trout population twofold; first by creating a literal barrier preventing upstream migration to spawning grounds, and second by reducing the water flow so swimming was more difficult. When the trout were put on the federal endangered the species list, the validity of the dam really came into question.
Beyond all these acute effects, the presence of the San Clemente dam on the Carmel River made the river ecosystem unhealthy and unnaturally dry. This is where citizens of Carmel Valley and local environmental groups got involved. The combination of the endangerment declaration of the river’s steelhead and the failed seismic review of the dam ushered in a new era for the river. The California American Water Company, which owned the San Clemente dam, considered retrofitting it, a cheaper solution compared to removing it. But the persistent push by groups like the Carmel River Steelhead Association and the Carmel River Watershed Conservancy made it hard for the company to keep the dam. These groups and individuals raised funds to make up the difference in cost between dam retrofit and dam removal.
With the completion of the removal project in 2015, the Carmel River has made a remarkable comeback. January of 2017 brought record river flows and high growth rates along the river. Steelhead trout were found above the original dam site. Rerouting the river to deposit the excess sediment safely served to protect the houses and marsh downstream from a flood of dirt.
Lorin Letendre, director of the Carmel River Watershed Conservancy, lives two blocks from the river and the lagoon. Mr. Letendre has seen the Carmel River at its worst and worked tirelessly as an advocate to make lasting improvements for the whole watershed. The Carmel River has held Legendre's interest because of the role it plays in his own community and the opportunity to give back to the natural ecosystem. For people outside of Carmel Valley, the story of the river is important, providing an example of an environmental success. Various ecological measurements, indicate the restoration efforts made on the river are creating a healthier riparian habitat. The teamwork of different organizations, innovative solutions like the sediment deposit plan, and the assertion of environmental values made the restoration of the Carmel River into a reality. Whether this case study serves as a blueprint or as motivation for other conservation projects, the example of the Carmel River watershed can contribute to the discussion of larger water and environment issues in the Monterey Peninsula and throughout California.
For the past 30 years, Alternative Breaks@Stanford have allowed undergraduates to explore complex social and cultural issues through a week-long immersive program. In 2017, the Bill Lane Center for the American West was pleased to support an Alternative Spring Break co-led by one of our Sophomore College alums, Matthew Cohen, and Elizabeth Trinh. Between winter and spring quarters, Matt and Elizabeth led a group of 12 students studying Environmental Policy in California, focused on climate change’s effects the Monterey Bay Peninsula. This series of blog posts highlights their experiences meeting with local leaders in Monterey and policymakers in Sacramento.
Read more at the Out West Student Blog »