Thursday, August 25, 2011
Walls have been notoriously divisive in Germany and Israel, but a vinyl flood wall in the Carmel Lagoon might finally forge peace between the area’s feuding homeowners and steelhead advocates.
At least that’s the hope of Carmel River Watershed Conservancy leaders, who have requested a $145,000 state grant for a feasibility study on an ecosystem protective barrier, or EPB. The recycled-vinyl sheet piling would line the lagoon’s western and northern borders at a height to allow the lagoon to breach naturally.
Almost every year for several decades, the county has bulldozed a breach on the lagoon’s southern side when it swells about 10 feet above the average high tide line. The breach helps protect homes on the lagoon’s northern border, but the fast-flowing outlet can sweep juvenile steelhead out to sea before they’re developmentally ready.
“It drains the lagoon like a bathtub,” says Frank Emerson of the Carmel River Steelhead Association. “The web of life is literally flushed to the ocean.”
Every year, up to tens of thousands of endangered native steelhead use the lagoon as a transition zone in their juvenile months, fattening up before braving the burly sea. “That lagoon is so central to their life cycle, it’s hard to overestimate its importance to the survival of the species,” Emerson says.
Conservancy President Lorin Letendre says the EPB can double the lagoon’s capacity from about 400 to 800 acre-feet, improving steelhead habitat and easing their passage to the sea, while protecting the 28 homes in the lagoon’s 100-year floodplain. “The other alternative would be to buy all those houses and remove them,” he says, “which at $2 million each would be tough.”
Peter Perrine, the state Wildlife Conservation Board’s assistant executive director, is optimistic about the EPB’s potential. “This proposal is designed to determine whether that issue can be resolved with a barrier that will improve habitat value within the lagoon and improve flood control as well,” he says.
Emerson says the low-lying homes on River Park Place may be at risk even if the county continues to manually breach the lagoon. “During major storm swells, those homes flood anyway,” he says, citing the January 2008 storm when waves rushed the lagoon and flooded 14 nearby homes.
Mary Jane Hammerland remembers that storm well. Although her own home on River Park Place was protected by a high foundation, some of her elderly neighbors had to evacuate.
She and her husband, Jack, former conservancy members, formed Homeowners for Effective Lagoon Management soon after federal regulators cracked down on the county’s artificial breaches in the 1990s.
The EPB should eliminate the county’s six-figure breaching costs and save local homeowners thousands in yearly flood insurance bills, she says. But a half-dozen homeowners in her group worry it’ll spoil their view of the lagoon.
If the state board approves the EPB grant Sept. 12, it will contract with the Monterey County Water Resources Agency to manage the study. A conservancy report estimates the total project cost at $1.4 million.
Emerson supports the EPB and says it should protect low-lying homes from flooding. But, he warns, it could create a new problem for a different set of homeowners.
When the lagoon returns to its natural hydrology of breaching to the north – giving steelhead a gentler, slower-flowing outlet to the sea – the river could erode the bluff holding up Scenic Drive, he says, where some of Carmel’s ritziest homes stand.
And the Battle of Carmel Lagoon, it seems, may simply migrate.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was corrected on Sept. 13. The original version erroniously quoted Frank Emerson saying that low-lying homes could still flood in a major storm event with the vinyl barrier in place.