Thursday, June 7, 2007
The water company and government agencies appear close to solving a problem that has stumped officials—and stranded fish—for more than a decade.
Cal Am executives, along with state and federal agencies, confirmed this week that they are currently negotiating a way to remove the San Clemente Dam on the Carmel River.
Cal Am Manager Steve Leonard says there have been “significant discussions” between the water company and the California Coastal Conservancy, a state agency that partners with other groups to preserve, protect and restore coastal areas.
“There’s a ways to go yet,” Leonard says, adding that Cal Am and the Coastal Conservancy have gotten to the point of pinning down the project’s costs—which could exceed $70 million. Leonard says there are also concerns about the liability once the dam has been removed—“if it does get removed.”
“We’re still in the positive-but-exploratory phase,” Leonard says.
Late last month, the Coastal Conservancy approved a plan to spend up to $500,000 for studies on removing the obsolete dam, which is so glutted with sediment that it no longer stores water.
The dam, located about 20 miles upstream from the mouth of the Carmel River, is a safety hazard in the event of an earthquake, and a huge obstacle to the endangered steelhead trout.
The Coastal Conservancy staff met in closed session last month to talk about acquiring the property around the dam. Cal Am, a private company, owns the dam and surrounding property. But public ownership of the structure would likely ease project financing by making state and federal money available.
Leonard says Cal Am would be amenable to an arrangement that transfers ownership of the dam to a public entity. “I think we’ve always looked at the land as part of the solution to make the deal work,” he says.
Trish Chapman, the project manager for the Coastal Conservancy, says she can’t comment on the details of property acquisition talks. “The fact that we’re putting in $500,000 of studies is indicative of the fact that we’re pretty optimistic,” Chapman says. “But it’s a complicated project and there are definitely some complicated issues yet to be worked out—with project design, and how to actually implement such a large project as a cooperative effort.”
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When it was built in 1921, the San Clemente Dam had the capacity to store 1,425-acre feet of drinking water. Over the decades, however, more than 2.5 million cubic yards of sediment have filled the reservoir, leaving a measly 125-acre-feet of storage capacity.
In 1986, state inspectors declared the structure a safety hazard. Six years later, the California Division of Dam Safety ordered Cal Am to make safety improvements.
“It’s an unsafe dam that’s outlived its lifespan,” says Frank Emerson, vice president of the Carmel River Steelhead Association. “It does not store water and it does not provide flood control.”
And it makes traveling upstream to spawn very difficult for the endangered fish.
Steelhead migrate as juveniles, swimming from the freshwater pools where they are born to the ocean. They return to the river to spawn and (unlike salmon) steelhead then go back out to sea.
For Carmel River steelhead, if the upstream journey doesn’t kill them, the return trip might. To get to their spawning pools, the fish must swim up 27 steps—up a 68-foot-tall fish ladder—and then through the silted reservoir and shallow river. To make it back out to the ocean, the steelhead must either negotiate a path down the fish ladder, or plunge off the 107-foot dam. That’s no problem for hatchlings, but it can be deadly for the full-grown fish.
“If adults go over the face of the dam, their bodies are a lot bigger, so they would sustain a greater impact from hitting the water, or they might hit the face of the dam,” says Joyce Ambrosius, NOAA Fisheries team leader for the Central Coast. “We don’t have numbers about how many survive the fall.”
Biologists say the river once supported between 12,200 and 20,000 fish. Between 1999 and 2005, steelhead counts at the fish ladder ranged from 400 to 800.
“It’s one of the greatest steelhead rivers in this part of California—or it used to be,” says Clive Sanders, president of the Carmel River Watershed Conservancy. “It’s now in a sorry state. If we can get this river up and running, 60 percent of the watershed is going to be opened up.”
Removing the dam would provide steelhead unimpaired access to more than 25 miles of spawning and rearing habitat, and would make it easier for fish traveling further upstream, beyond Los Padres Dam, where there is an additional 18 miles of spawning and rearing habitat.
But it won’t be cheap.
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A year ago, the state Department of Water Resources and the US Army Corps of Engineers released a draft environmental impact report on the seismic safety project for the dam. The study listed five alternatives, ranging from removing the dam to doing nothing. The state will release the final EIR this month.
Cal Am officials have maintained that their preferred alternative is to re-buttress the dam, strengthening the structure by adding concrete, and building a new fish ladder. At $50 million, this plan is the least expensive of the alternatives.
“From the point of view of our customers, who end up shouldering the lion’s share of the project, we want to do what’s most cost efficient,” Leonard says.
But the Coastal Conservancy, the Steelhead Association, NOAA Fisheries and others say this option amounts to doing nothing. It would hold back the sediment, but that’s it.
The draft EIR also includes a few alternatives for removing the dam. One would simply demolish the structure—and nobody says this would be a good idea. This option would flood the river with silt and bury habitat and wildlife. Another option involves removing the sediment from the reservoir—trucking some 250,000 loads of it through the gated community of Sleepy Hollow—before destroying the dam.
The third option calls for the river to be rerouted before the dam is removed. All parties involved say they support that idea—so long as they can come up with $75 million to pay the bill.
Under this plan, a portion of the river would be permanently bypassed by cutting a 450-foot channel, upstream from the dam, connecting San Clemente Creek and the Carmel River. The old channel would be used as a disposal site for the sediment. The dam and fish ladder would be demolished and removed.
This option restores the river and makes traveling to and from the sea much easier for migrating steelhead. It also leaves the alluvial floodplains intact; the sandy areas have become important habitat to the endangered red-legged frog.
“We feel like this is a really good answer to getting the dam out, and to alleviate the issue of trying to do something with the sediment,” Ambrosius says. “The alternative would probably be leaving the dam in place.”
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The biggest barrier to the reroute alternative has been the $75 million price tag. Leonard has indicated that Cal Am is ready to put up the cost of meeting the state safety mandate—estimated at around $50 million. But the rest of the money has yet to be secured. “That’s part of what we’d be working on in the next six months or so,” Chapman says.
NOAA Fisheries has been looking at some creative schemes.
“We’ve been looking at trying to find some [public agency] to take over ownership of the dam because we’d like to use military training as part of the dam removal to save money,” Ambrosius says.
Ambrosius is looking into a program called Innovative Readiness Training (IRT), which uses Department of Defense money, personnel and equipment to support civilian projects.
“They would do the dredging, the blasting, taking the dam out,” Ambrosius says, “which would save a lot of money. But we need a public agency or non-profit to own the property—they can’t partner with a private company.”
Leonard says he is “not as optimistic” about the IRT option. “The prospect of having the federal government come in and do some work is very intriguing,” he says, “but the devil is in the details.”
The state will release the final EIR on the seismic safety project sometime in June. Meanwhile, the Coastal Conservancy will move forward with engineering and technical studies related to removing the dam and rerouting the river.
Leonard says the project is completely unprecedented.
“There have been dam removals, but very often they are small, very low-level dam removals,” he says. “Matilija Dam in Ventura is the best local example. But this proposal to completely reroute the river around the sediment pile—I’m not aware of a solution like this anywhere in the country or anywhere in the world. I think it’s a world-class solution and ought to draw world-class attention.
“The technical issues can be overcome. The questions are about financing and ownership and long-term liabilities. These are significant issues that need to be looked at. But from an engineering standpoint, it’s doable.”
|THE WEEKLY TALLY||175||
The number of days a year set aside in recognition of some form of food or drink by government officials and/or a sponsoring agency which maintains “some sort of ongoing promotion or tangible enthusiasm.” June is National Surimi Seafood Month and the month to celebrate papayas, iced tea, frozen yogurt, candy, soul food, and applesauce cake. Source: The New York Times, Chase’s Calendar of Events.