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Dam Removal Along the Carmel River

May 1 2017

Image: Along the Carmel Rver

By Hikaru Hotta

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.

Out West Student Blog

Student Blog

The San Clemente Dam is a 106-foot-high, concrete dam that used to lie on the Carmel River. However, in 1992, the dam was deemed unsafe due to seismic activity in the area. What followed was the San Clemente Dam removal project, the largest of its kind to occur in California.

During our Alternate Spring Break Trip on Environmental Policy in California, we were able to meet with Lorin Letendre, Executive Director of the Carmel River Watershed Conservancy and J. Aman Gonzalez, California American Water project manager. Both gave us an overview of the environmental benefits of the dam removal and the technicalities behind the project.

On March 26th, we visited Mr. Letendre’s home, where we discussed the project’s contribution towards conservation of steelhead, a critically endangered salmonid species of the anadramous coastal rainbow trout. He stated that the San Clemente Dam used to block the migration path of steelhead along the Carmel River. With its removal, steelhead now have access to an additional 25 miles of upstream tributaries and creeks that it can use to mate and spawn. Mr. Letendre also stated that while steelhead populations have been recovering, this year’s intense rainfall destroyed artificial fish steps and pools that had been constructed to assist fish migration. The loss of these structures raises further concerns about the protection of steelhead. Further studies need to be conducted to find out whether steelhead are able to migrate upstream without the assistance of the fish steps.

Two days later on March 28th, we had the opportunity to visit the San Clemente Dam removal site on a tour lead by Mr. Gonzalez. He said that the San Clemente Dam used to hold back 2.5 million cubic yards of sediment, and relocating the sediment was unfeasible. Therefore, the Carmel River was rerouted into the San Clemente Creek to reduce the environmental impact of the project. At the dam removal site, we were able to see clearly where the dam had been removed, and the beautiful turquoise flow of the rerouted Carmel River. To restore the natural habitat in the area. trees and plants were being grown in the sediment stockpile where the Carmel River used to run. Through the project, Mr. Gonzalez said, the protection of endangered steelhead and California red-legged frogs could be achieved and beach erosion that has contributed to infrastructure destabilization could be reduced.

What many of us found interesting about the San Clemente Dam removal project was the amount of time it took to complete. It took eight years for the Environmental Impact Statement to be approved and a further five years until the deconstruction of the dam even began. Despite years of planning, the removal of the dam only took six weeks, which is a testament to the assiduous pre-emptive legal and technical procedures required for such a significant undertaking.

The San Clemente Dam removal project found a way to deal with sediment without causing significant flooding downstream. The San Clemente Dam sets precedents for dam removals all across that nation, since many dams have limited water storage capacity due to sedimentation and are blocking the migration of anadramous fish.

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 »


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