Thursday, May 31, 2012
After giving several talks on his new book, Ray March is irritated with the inevitable audience question about solutions. “I’m the messenger,” he says. “I don’t have the answers.”
The pathetic state of the Carmel River is at the heart of daily headlines about the Monterey Peninsula’s water-supply crisis. And March, a career journalist who lived in the watershed on and off for more than 60 years, has the street cred to deliver the context: He spent 10 years putting together his new book, River in Ruin: The Story of the Carmel River, about that bleak history.
The river is choked up at two dams, starved of the sediment it needs to support a healthy food chain, and constricted in its path by private landowners desperate to stabilize its eroding banks.
The dams and low seasonal flows have made it so hard for native steelhead to get to and from the sea that it takes an army of volunteers, an alphabet soup of public agencies and millions of dollars just to keep the population on life support – and a catastrophic wildfire, resulting from decades of poor forest management, could still wipe them out with a flash of lightning.
The river’s most serious and expensive challenge, though, is that it’s being sucked dry to supply the Peninsula. With 12,000 acre-feet per year diverted for human use – more than three times the legal limit – many of the river’s tributaries wither in the summer, stranding steelhead and parching a lower watershed that depends on it.
This isn’t some hippy-dippy concern about fish and frogs. The Carmel River is literally the lifeblood of its watershed, nourishing the oak savannahs and redwood groves, the hotels and the golf greens that define this region. Without a healthy river, the Monterey Peninsula loses the very essence of what makes it a so-called “paradise” – as it’s been marketed since the turn of the 20th Century.
It’s that promise of paradise that has, paradoxically, fueled the unchecked growth that has drained and polluted the river over the past 130 years.
The Carmel River in March’s book is an abused treasure in a region that ought to be more reverential toward it. It’s not our birthright. It’s a lifeline, the only freshwater source in a semi-arid Peninsula. As we manipulate it, pollute it and drain it, more concerned about supply than with the river’s health, we’re only pissing in our own well.
But in a book that’s mostly doom and dams, it’s the epilogue that finally offers hope, and an introduction to the critical next chapter: The two things most culpable for sapping life from the Carmel River, the San Clemente Dam and the illegal water withdrawals, are on a path to course correction.
~ ~ ~
The Carmel River trickles more than gushes at its source, pulsing with the rains but more often burbling meekly over sand and gravel, wending a narrow 36-mile course from the Santa Lucia mountains to the Pacific Ocean and giving life to the rare habitats that define this biodiverse region.
In the history March maps, the Peninsula’s leaders have valued the Carmel River not for its intrinsic worth but as something to be grabbed. While most California waterways are publicly controlled, the Carmel River has been a commodity in private hands since the 1880s, and it remains so today.
From the time Spanish missionaries first tapped it for agriculture, the river has been trenched, piped, drilled and pumped to serve the sardine canneries, golf courses, houses, hotels and spectator events that draw tourists from around the globe. It’s been used as a dump by property owners, constricted in its movement to protect the homes hazardously built in its path, dammed and dammed and dammed again.
March talks about the Peninsula and its leaders with the heartache that comes from loving something too much.
His family moved to Monterey in 1938, when March was 4, and later to Seaside and then Carmel. As an adult, he lived in Pacific Grove and Cachagua. He was a school-sports correspondent for what was then The Monterey Peninsula Herald at age 16, flunked English at Monterey Peninsula College, and burned down an old sand plant at the Carmel River Lagoon with some college buddies. (True story, as told in the book’s prologue. It was an accident.)
March went on to a prolific career in journalism, writing for the Herald and later Overseas Weekly, The Salinas Californian, The L.A. Herald Examiner and The Carmel Pine Cone, where he was editor-in-chief in the mid-’90s – “but only for one glorious, muckraking year.” His wife Barbara, also a writer, headed the Carmel Publishing Company. Ray later went on to full-time freelancing, with a focus on golf and travel writing for publications like the Herald and Oceans magazine. He wrote four nonfiction books including A Paradise Called Pebble Beach and California Golf.
Ten years ago Ray and Barbara moved from Monterey to Modoc, launched a local monthly newspaper and an annual magazine, and cofounded a nonprofit “perpetuating an awareness of rural life through literature and the arts.”
At 77, March speaks with the articulate irreverence of a tenured college professor and says retirement’s for people who hate their jobs. Asked why he wrote River in Ruin, he twists the mountain climber’s proverbial line: “Because the river’s not there.” The 174-page book is heavily annotated and profoundly researched yet easy to read, a simply told history with rewarding swells of unexpected poetry.
The Carmel River is a critical issue for Central Coast residents, March says, but it’s also part of a larger pattern of water misuse in the West. “This book is to give you a historic picture of what’s happened to that river,” he says, “and why we are where we are today.”
Civilizations are defined by their proximity to water, and how they manage that water. Without the Carmel River, there would be no Monterey Peninsula as we know it. We may not think in such morbid terms when we turn on the shower or go golfing, but we’ve come dangerously close to bleeding our river to death.
~ ~ ~
The Carmel River watershed is a semi-arid region, with an average 21.5 inches of rainfall a year falling mostly between November and April. Dams help store some that water in the wet season for use in the dry summer and fall.
Three dams have given urban life to the developing Monterey Peninsula. The first was the 400-acre-foot Chinese Dam, which immigrants working 24 hours a day built in 1883 to supply Monterey’s first tourist attraction, the Hotel Del Monte.
Today the Chinese Dam (more politely called the Old Carmel River Dam) is a relic, a modest wall of stones and cement above an inviting jade-green pool. So is the rusted pipeline snaking through shrubs along California American Water Company’s dirt access road in Carmel Valley. Once an artery to the Peninsula, it’s now most useful as a guardrail.
After some inter-agency bickering over what to do with the Chinese Dam, Cal Am has agreed to take it down and use the rubble to stabilize slopes in a much more complex dam removal project just upstream.
The San Clemente Dam, built in 1921, is a 106-foot-high, reinforced concrete arch bolted into bedrock on both sides, a powerful and imposing structure with an art deco grace, originally holding 1,425 acre-feet of water at the confluence of the Carmel River and San Clemente Creek, in the steep, pine-encrusted ravines southeast of Carmel Valley Village.
During a mid-May visit with Cal Am spokeswoman Catherine Bowie and Engineering Director Richard Svindland, water spills over the dam, creating a rainbow in the spray. This isn’t how it looks in summer, Bowie qualifies; from June to December, it’s usually a stagnant mire of muck.
Aerators in the reservoir help bring extra oxygen to the fish so they don’t suffocate. Below the dam, a fish ladder offers spawning steelhead an imposing path to the reservoir. About 470 made it up last year.
The San Clemente Dam is a giver of life, but it could also be deadly. In 1992, the State Water Resources Control Agency ordered Cal Am to upgrade its aging dam to make it safe in the event of a big flood or earthquake. If it were to break, an estimated 2.5 million cubic feet of trapped sediment would come rolling down the river, burying Camp Steffani, a neighborhood between the river and Carmel Valley Road. Video cameras mounted by the dam’s old chemical feed building surveil the structure, ready to trip an alarm system should the dam falter.
The dam that watered the Peninsula’s growth through World War II is now a liability. The San Clemente is now so silted in it holds less than 60 acre-feet of water; the state declared it obsolete in 2003. An environmental impact report four years later gave Cal Am a choice to either strengthen the dam with steel-reinforced concrete at a cost of about $49 million, or take it down and re-route the river around the accumulated silt for $83 million.
Cal Am flip-flopped between the two options for a couple of years. Buttressing was cheaper, but removing the dam environmentally superior and more likely to be permitted. In early 2010 Cal Am committed to removal, so long as other agencies and foundations pick up the extra $34 million. As of this spring, public agencies had secured more than three-fourths of the needed funding for the San Clemente Dam Removal and River Reroute Project.
In practical terms, the dam removal won’t directly affect our water supply. But it should improve the health of the watershed we depend on – like removing a benign cyst near a critical artery.
For those who follow it, the project – and questions of how it’s done, who pays for it and how it impacts the environment – is fantastic political theater. In the latest dust-up, Cal Am is maneuvering to shunt more costs onto ratepayers and make a profit on the process, inciting outrage among watchdogs like Monterey-based Citizens for Public Water. The California Public Utilities Commission is expected to consider the issue June 21.
For those of us who don’t obsess over the details, it’ll mean yet another bump to our water bill. CPW cofounder George Riley says the low-cost scenario will bill Cal Am ratepayers $75 million over 20 years; the high-cost option, $150 million.
Twenty years after the state water board’s order to do something about the dam, its removal is finally poised to happen. The California Coastal Conservancy, which is leading the planning and design, expects road work to begin in late summer. Construction on the river reroute should start in spring 2013, assuming the project lines up all its necessary permits and doesn’t hit any roadblocks. Cal Am hopes to have the dam down by 2015.
The plan: To cut a channel into the ridge now separating the Carmel River and San Clemente Creek, letting the river bypass a half mile of its current course. Contractors will then bookend the 2.5 million cubic feet of accumulated sediment in the 2,500-foot stretch where the river used to flow. That done, they’ll dynamite the dam and remove its old fish ladder.
When the dam’s down, Cal Am will transfer the 928-acre project area to the public. Steelhead will regain unrestricted access to the 7 miles of river between the two dams, and to the spawning tributaries of San Clemente and Pine creeks.
The average Monterey Peninsula resident might not notice the difference. But with a major arterial blockage removed, the watershed’s heart will beat stronger.
~ ~ ~
There is one more clog in the Carmel River’s circulation system. Six miles upstream of the San Clemente, between Cachagua wine country and the wilds of Los Padres National Forest, the Los Padres Dam creates a reservoir pretty enough for a plein-air painting, but one that’s a prison for steelhead fish whose hearts beat for the sea.
Unlike the arresting San Clemente, the Los Padres is an earthen dam with few hard parts. Rather than tumbling 100 feet, the water slips unassumingly over the dam’s lip and down a concrete spillway, then falls back into the river. During low flows the spillway scrapes the fishes’ bellies, sometimes knocking off scales or injuring their eyes, leaving them prone to infection. About 8 percent of the fish going over the spillway die and another 8 percent suffer severe injuries, according to a recent study.
Old wooden and metal fish ladders have become useless artifacts at Los Padres. Instead, a Cal Am damkeeper gives spawning steelhead a lift up the dam with a false fish ladder. It lures steelhead up to a trap on legs; the damkeeper then backs up a tanker truck, sluices the fish in and drives them up to the reservoir. This year 174 spawning steelhead have made it up the Los Padres Dam via “trap-and-truck,” and 204 in 2011. Even those low numbers are encouraging: In 2010 only 55 fish made it, and in 2009, 21.
New technology should make the downstream migration less intense. The state has authorized Cal Am to spend up to $2.5 million on a “floating fish collector,” which traps oceangoing juveniles above the spillway and ferries them to the base of the dam.
Resident trout and oceangoing steelhead are genetically the same stock, Urquhart explains, and they can interbreed. But South Central California steelhead are what biologists call a “distinct population segment,” with unique DNA among the planet’s steelhead.
According to a leading hypothesis, some steelhead “decide” not to go to sea. These are the resident rainbow trout, and they’re usually under 3 inches. Others, generally the 3-to-8-inchers, dare to make the journey; these are the oceangoing steelhead. The “supergrowers,” more than 8 inches long, stick to the river where they can dominate and eat their smaller brethren.
Even the oceangoing steelhead will hang back, Urquhart says, if they sense the river flow is too shallow at the spillway. Instead of swimming to sea, getting fat and returning to the river to spawn – delivering amino-rich ocean nutrients to the watershed when they die – these fish, maybe hundreds or thousands of them, become resident rainbow trout.
Frank Emerson of Carmel River Steelhead Association says if a stock is land-locked too long, it can lose its genetic code for anadromy – the gene that tells fish to migrate. It’s like a caterpillar never finding a suitable leaf on which to build its cocoon, and forfeiting its chance to become a butterfly. Over time, the caterpillar's progeny might not bother with cocoons at all.
So is this justification for Peninsula residents to spend half a billion dollars on an alternative water supply: to let fish follow their hearts to the sea?
Urquhart looks a little hurt by the question. “Biologically, you want the fish to behave normally,” he says. “The loss of the ocean-going run may depress the food chain, because nothing’s being brought back from the ocean.”
A robust steelhead fishery could lure sports fishermen and boost the local tourist economy. The Los Padres reservoir is still open to fishing, subject to Department of Fish and Game conditions: no artificial lures, no bait, barbless hooks, and only the fish measuring 10-16 inches are keepers. The revival of the steelhead stock at the Los Padres reservoir could be a major economic boost to local tourism, adds Urquhart, a sports fisherman himself.
But the Los Padres Dam’s future is uncertain. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wants it to come down, Urquhart says, while the state Department of Fish & Game and MPWMD unofficially support dredging it and leaving it up.
For Emerson, it’s a no-brainer: “Preferably there wouldn’t be a dam there,” he says. “That’s the only proven method for 100-percent fish passage.”
Urquhart says the dam’s got at least 60 years of usefulness before it becomes prohibitively silted in; dredging could free up an additional 850-1,500 acre-feet. That could help keep the river wet during the dry season, when drought can threaten mandatory water rationing. (Think 5-minute showers in Peninsula households.)
In a semi-arid, Mediterranean climate like ours, Urquhart says, some sort of drought-proof water supply is critical. “If we’re not able to grab and store water in an environmentally sensitive area, we’re left with nothing but desal.”
Dredging the Los Padres is peanuts next to that last resort. A regional desalination plant could multiply monthly water bills by four.
~ ~ ~
Jack Galante, owner of Galante Vineyards in Cachagua and great-grandson of Carmel founder Frank Devendorf, says he watched the river get progressively worse between the ’60s and ’80s.
“I remember as a kid when I was going down to the river you’d see these amazing steelhead runs, fresh clean water coming out. We’d spend hours swimming in the river. It changed drastically over the years. The vegetation lower in the river was less. The flow rate seemed to go down. We haven’t seen those incredible steelhead runs in quite a while.”
The river’s shrinkage prompted the state Water Resources Control Board to give Cal Am a dressing-down with a 1995 cease-and-desist order. As far as the state’s concerned, Cal Am only has rights to 3,376 acre-feet of Carmel River water; the rest is taken illegally. In 2011, according to a Cal Am spokesman, the water company pumped about 7,500 acre-feet from the river.
After 14 years waiting patiently for results Cal Am didn’t deliver, the state ordered it to cut out the overdrafting by the end of 2016. The worst-case scenario, if we don’t have new supply in place by then: less than half the water coming out of local faucets.
Now Cal Am and its public regulators are trying to squeeze water from a stone – and find water-supply alternatives to the Peninsula’s only river.
MPWMD already has several projects in the pipeline. Its aquifer storage and recovery efforts draw from Carmel River wells during high flows, inject that water into the Seaside Basin and store it there until the dry season, when they pump it back out. ASR isn’t creating water; it’s just easing pressure on the Carmel River in the summer, when steelhead need all the flow they can get. The first phase already produces 1,000 acre-feet, or about 9 percent of the district’s water, and the second phase will add 1,000 acre-feet more.
MPWMD is also eyeing a piece of the Naval Postgraduate School – symbolically, the site of the Hotel Del Monte for which the Chinese Dam first obstructed the Carmel River in 1883 – to build a modestly sized desalination plant. Just north, the region’s only functioning desal plant already supplies up to 300 acre-feet a year to the city of Sand City, reducing withdrawals off the river.
But it’s the competing proposals for a big desal plant that are getting most local press. With the Regional Desalination Project described in March’s epilogue now dead, Cal Am’s now moving forward with its repackaged Water Supply Project, featuring a 5,500-acre-foot per year desal plant in Marina.
The state’s cutback order means the Carmel River should flow 70 percent freer by 2017. The change could produce a river barely recognizable to locals: one that runs deep even in the dry season, ripe for a swim on a hot summer day.
Between the reduced river pumping, the San Clemente Dam removal and the Los Padres fish collector, the steelheads’ most formidable obstacles to spawning will be gone by then, too.
But recent history offers more than enough reason to be cynical. Cal Am’s latest desal proposal raises major legal and financial questions, just like the previous one did; already the legal challenges are rolling in. Peninsula residents are looking at the likelihood of water bills tripling or even quadrupling in the next decade; any new projects the MPWMD runs by them are likely to be hard sells.
March wants pressure taken off the Carmel River, but he worries desal will lead to more growth this watershed can’t support. “We’re voting our pocketbook and not out of concern for the river,” he says. “If we have to go to desal, haven’t we already gone too far?”
~ ~ ~
A toddler curls his bare toes and studies the pebbly river bottom. The water is only a couple of inches deep here, but it’s refreshing and clear, flowing from a backdrop of green Carmel Valley hills. Older kids charge through in the sun-dappled shallows, their parents resting after a volunteer work session marking Watershed Appreciation Day.
One of those parents is Rami Shihadeh, the Resource Conservation District employee working with community groups, organizations and agencies on coordination activities in the Carmel River watershed. He says about 30 volunteers planted 150 trees on Watershed Awareness Day – a project of the RCD, MPWMD and the Monterey County Parks District – adding to a stabilization project initiated after the 1995 floods.
This shady shore at De Dampierre Park was a stretch of mostly bare sand when the river was at its worst in the ’70s and ’80s, as Urquhart explains later, but MPWMD’s patient labors have brought it back.
It’s not the only success story. A former sandbar at Schulte Road is now a Big Sur Land Trust songbird sanctuary, part of BSLT’s 25-year Carmel River Valley Conservation Program, which aims to acquire and restore land along the river’s corridor and educate the public about the watershed.
The BSLT is also working to restore the lower Carmel River floodplain on the east side of Highway 1 while reducing flood risk to homes near the mouth of the river. State Parks is leading a coordinated restoration effort on the ocean side of the highway.
The Carmel Lagoon has been a battleground pitting homeowners against environmentalists for decades. At issue is the county’s annual practice of mechanically breaching the lagoon when it threatens to flood nearby homes. The outlet, however, sweeps juvenile steelhead to sea before they’ve fattened up enough to thrive in the Pacific. Lorin Letendre of the Carmel River Watershed Conservancy hopes the installation of a vinyl sheet piling called an ecosystem protective barrier can end the grudge. By lining the lagoon’s western and northern ends, he says, the barrier will allow the lagoon to breach naturally to the south, protecting the multi-million-dollar homes and the steelhead. The project is set to begin in June, including a plan to armor Scenic Road in the unexpected event the lagoon breaches to the north.
Projects like these suggest a more hopeful sequel to March’s book. The Carmel River may have been headed for ruin a few decades ago, but it’s still got some key assets going for it.
Its headwaters are in the protected wilderness of Los Padres National Forest, and from there it flows into rural Carmel Valley. That big, mostly undeveloped drainage basin lets the water soak into the ground, collecting critical flow for the dry season.
Other than a bit of leakage from Carmel Valley septic tanks, the Carmel is also a pretty clean river. It’s got some pollutants – runoff from paved streets and properties, winery fertilizers and pesticides, household chemicals and the like – but no direct industrial discharges. The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and the Coastal Watershed Council conduct water sampling immediately after the wet season’s first rain, when pollution tends to spike, and are also taking monthly samples in a year-long monitoring effort. They haven’t found contaminant levels above regulator standards yet. “The water quality in the Carmel River is generally quite good,” says Greg Pepping, executive director of the Coastal Watershed Council. The monitoring will continue throughout the San Clemente Dam Removal and Reroute Project, he adds. “Most expect water quality to improve – but it’s always important to have real data to measure what’s truly happening.”
The Carmel River steelhead could have easily gone extinct by now. They’re still here, thanks to a tireless life-support network of people installing ladders and fish collectors, scooping them up when their creeks dry out, ferrying them to MPWMD’s Sleepy Hollow fish-rearing facility and releasing them to deeper waters. Emerson says the river didn’t connect to the ocean at all during the 1987-91 drought: “If it wasn’t for the steelhead association doing a brood-stock program, the majority of the steelhead run would have been lost forever.”
A network of nonprofits working to protect and restore the watershed, including Big Sur Land Trust, Carmel River Watershed Conservancy and Carmel River Steelhead Association, are leveraging resources to come up with creative solutions to river restoration even in a down economy. Regulatory agencies from local to federal (including MPWMD, the county Resource Conservation District, California Coastal Conservancy and NOAA) are also pressuring change, driven by progressive environmental laws.
“This is historic. It’s a precedent other places can look to,” Emerson says. “The river’s been used as a dump and a place to take our water from, and so we’ve lost a treasure. I think we’re starting to look at it that way.”
March may not believe he has the answers, but by detailing a 410-year history we shouldn’t forget, he’s certainly showing us some of them. It took him 10 years to write River in Ruin, but the river’s story over the next five years may prove even more compelling.
We’ve never been so close to giving the river its water back.
Ray March’s River in Ruin is available at select local bookstores and at www.riverinruin.com.