San Clemente Dam removal begins with ceremony

San Clemente Dam

Elected officials, conservation groups and community leaders from across the California gathered earlier today for a ceremony marking the first day of the San Clemente Dam's deconstruction.

Built in 1921, the San Clemente Dam was determined to be seismically unsafe and an impediment to steelhead trout and other wildlife below the structure, causing owner California American Water to request permission to remove the dam in September 2009. reported in May that a US$61 million contract had been awarded to Granite Construction (NYSE: GVA) to remove both it and the Carmel River Dam as part of the Carmel River Reroute and San Clemente Dam Removal Project.

"This project will be the largest dam removal in state history," said Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif. "It marks the beginning of a new era for this river, its inhabitants and the community it benefits. The project itself also marks a new way forward in terms of public-private partnerships and working together to accomplish major infrastructure endeavors like this one. This model could be applied to other dams in the state that have exceeded their useful life."

The removal project, undertaken by California American Water in partnership with the California State Coastal Conservancy, NOAA Fisheries and The Nature Conservancy, will cost an estimate $83 million. California American Water will contribute $49 million, with the remainder coming from the State Coastal Conservancy and NOAA Fisheries. The Nature Conservancy and other public and private sources are also expected to contribute.

"Thanks to public-private cooperation, this project will help restore 25 miles of sensitive steelhead spawning habitat and create open space for all Californians to enjoy," said state Secretary for Natural Resources John Laird.

The dam does not provide a significant amount of water storage and its reservoir is over 95% filled with more than 2.5 million cubic yards of sediment, making "more of a risk than a benefit", according to The Nature Conservancy.

The removal project's benefits are numerous, advocates said, and include:

  • Permanently removing public safety risks posed by a potential collapse of the San Clemente Dam, which could potentially threated 1,500 homes and other public buildings in the event of a large flood or earthquake;
  • Aiding in the recovery of threatened South-Central California Coast steelhead trout by providing an unimpaired stretch of 25 miles of spawning and rearing habitat;
  • Expanding public recreation by preserving more than 900 acres of coastal watershed lands, resulting in over 5,400 acres of contiguous regional park land;
  • Restoring the river's natural sediment flow, helping replenish sands on Carmel Beach;
  • Reducing beach erosion that now contributes to destabilization of homes, roads and infrastructure;
  • Reestablishing a connection between the lower Carmel River and watershed above San Clemente Dam; and
  • Improving habitat for threatened California red-legged frogs.

"In my 20 years in local government, this is the most unique public-private partnership I've ever seen," Monterey County supervisor Dave Potter said. "All the parties benefit. The environment, the river -- they're the biggest winners."

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