Do you know what the standard procedure is for removing a dam? Most of the time it involves using explosives in the dam and letting the flow of the river wash all of the sediment downstream. The problem with this approach is that the sediment trapped behind the dam can suffocate downstream wildlife. Luckily, most of the time this impact is short lived, and within a few years the rivers are back to normal.
The ongoing project to remove the San Clemente dam from the Carmel River takes a different approach by rerouting the river, and the results so far have been extraordinary. When the dam is removed, the accumulated sediment will stay in place, and the river will be rerouted in a manner to accommodate fish migration. The project is the largest dam removal project ever in California history – done in cooperation with federal, state and local agencies including the California State Coastal Conservancy and NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, and California American Water Company, among others.
Removing a dam of this size is no small feat, and some amazing strides have been made in the two years since it started: bulldozers have cut through a mountain and formed the new, man-made portion of the Carmel River. Threatened species of fish and frogs were rescued to accomplish this. Excavation of the new river channel is complete and in May work will begin to “draw down” the reservoir followed by the removal of the dam itself. The project’s website shows time lapse photos and videos of the progress that’s been made. You can also find videos on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YeZ9D0v3yVA).
The rebirth of the Carmel River is an exciting project and being conducted in a manner that will set the standard for new dam removal projects. However, prudent management of water supplies is of highest priority, certainly made critical given the Western U.S. drought conditions. According to the EPA, $384.2 billion is needed over the next 20 years to secure and maintain efficient water systems throughout the U.S. We need to uncork the bottlenecks that impede the flow of public and private monies necessary to fund such projects.
The Carmel River is already flowing on a new course that in only a few months’ time will be free from the dam’s obstruction. We have a much longer timeline ahead of us to develop a comprehensive U.S. water policy that will similarly flow out to states and localities to enable them to set a new standard for water resource management. Too much “sediment” has clogged the political process – time for the bulldozers!