The demolition of the San Clemente Dam will set the Carmel River free. But when we mess with nature, the solutions carry their own great cost.
Story and photos by Ryan Masters
Aug. 18, 2015—The staccato burst of a 16,000-pound pneumatic hammer resounds up the Carmel River’s canyon like a monstrous woodpecker. A symphony of engines, clanging equipment tracks, and piercing caution beeps underscores the hammer’s solo.
They are tearing down the San Clemente Dam and I have come to say adios.
I am not sad to see the useless dam go. Over the last 92 years, it has slowly choked itself on 2.5 million cubic yards of muck. By the turn of the millennium, silt had reached its very brim, exerting a huge strain on the structure and creating a major earthquake hazard. When I wrote about it in 2006, I described the reservoir behind the dam as “more braided sediment field than lake.” San Clemente’s fate has been sealed, so to speak, for a long time now.
This morning, I considered hiking up to the dam from Carmel Valley Road. By 6am, however, Granite Construction’s dam demolition team was already arriving en masse like an army of motorized beavers. There was no way I was slipping incognito up to the dam from below.
Fortunately, I know the area fairly well. When my son was two, we lived on the Carmel River for a year—a few miles downriver from the dam. He learned to throw by chucking rocks into its crystal waters.
Granite Construction has carefully orchestrated the media’s access to the area since the dam removal and river relocation project began in July 2013. At 8am, I hike away from my car on Cachagua Road and descend a trail to the river, determined to examine the dam one last time before it's gone.
Dams are wonderfully concrete symbols of man’s determination to control beauty and wildness. When I was a teenager, Edward Abbey’s eco-activist fable The Monkey Wrench Gang was a major influence—right up there with the Beat poets, Lewis Carroll and the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. Naturally I dreamed of blowing up dams as a young man.
The Monkey Wrench Gang concerns a group of four misfit environmentalists who sabotage the work of developers in the American Southwest. To protect what they see as the sacred purity of the land, they vandalize development. The book climaxes with an attempt to free the Colorado River by detonating the Glen Canyon Dam.
In hindsight, it’s kind of a silly book, especially compared to Abbey’s other, more meditative work. Nevertheless, it has been influential, allegedly informing the creation and tactics of organizations like Earth First!.
In 1992, I was a Western Shoshone Defense Project activist on the Dann Ranch in Northern Nevada. At the time, the Bureau of Land Management was trying to evict the Dann sisters from their land, citing a 120-year-old grazing act. The Shoshone had never signed a treaty of any kind and argued the ranch was sovereign land. Many suspected the real reason the feds wanted the Danns gone lay somewhere among the rich deposits of uranium and hydrothermal energy. Anyway, while under siege by the BLM, our small band of activists employed caltrops, basically medieval anti-personnel weapons, out of nails and potatoes. The idea came straight from The Monkey Wrench Gang.
I may have destroyed some tires, but I never blew up any dams. While a wonderfully dramatic plot device, blowing up a dam would wreak far more environmental damage than even building one. Hundreds of tons of concrete rubble and silt plugging up a river isn’t exactly an elegant solution.
So Granite Construction is slowly gnawing away at the dam with a 16,000-pound hammer rather than going the Hayduke route. As for the 2.5 million cubic yards of silt backed up behind it? It’s staying right where it is.
I hike down the chalky white trail through uniformly dense chaparral. Fog caps the valley like a lid. I flush a covey of 30 quail. They startle in perfect unison, their wings thrumming in one rapid-fire volley. Spanish moss hangs so low from the oak back here it sweeps the ground like the train of Miss Havisham’s wedding dress. I pass a homesteader’s cabin, its intact stone walls alone in a thick field of rust-colored poison oak.
On the cool valley floor, I pick my way downriver. The translucent water runs through lush reeds and grasses, around islands of fern. A burst of calla lilies accents the shore. In the shadows of a deep pool, I glimpse movement. But it’s only a submerged leaf turning in the current.
Historically, biologists estimate the Carmel River once supported 12,000 to 20,000 steelhead. By the early 1990s, the population had declined to a few hundred fish. In recent years, only 20 steelhead managed to climb the 68-foot, 27-step fish ladder. And it’s safe to say that fewer than that survived the return trip to the ocean, which required a daredevil plunge off the 107-foot dam itself.
Frankly, it’s a miracle there are any steelhead left in the Carmel River at all.
According to a 2003 report by the State Coastal Conservancy, two-thirds of the potential spawning habitat in the Carmel River watershed occurs behind San Clemente Dam. Removing the dam would open the river up five miles to Los Padres Dam, the only other dam on the river. It would also establish access to a majority of the steelheads’ spawning and rearing habitats, which are also located above the dam.
In addition, it would allow gravels to naturally flow downstream, creating better spawning beds and insect breeding grounds all the way to the ocean.
Restored to its full glory, the Carmel River would rank among the great rivers of the world. In his novel Sweet Thursday, John Steinbeck wrote that the Carmel is everything a river is supposed to be. The removal of the dam is an opportunity to prove him right.
As I approach the construction zone, the sound of the heavy machinery is deafening. This is a heavy, heavy project—the largest of its kind ever undertaken in California. I cross over a narrow ridge to San Clemente Creek and ascend a trail that traverses sharply up the southern wall of the valley.
With altitude comes perspective. I am stunned by what I see. A square-mile area behind the dam has been absolutely scoured. Heavy machinery mucks about in the basin of sediment, pushing it this way and that like sticky paste. The scene is apocalyptic. I have to remind myself the project’s intentions are good.
One of the most difficult aspects of any dam removal project in the western U.S. is coping with massive sediment deposits. Trucking it clear of the river was out of the question. And due to historic flooding problems downstream, allowing the sediment to simply erode downstream was ruled out. So engineers decided to re-route a half-mile portion of the Carmel River into San Clemente Creek and use the abandoned reach as a sediment storage area.
As I mentioned, San Clemente Dam is located just downstream of the confluence of the Carmel River and San Clemente Creek. The two waterways are separated by the narrow ridge I traversed on my way downriver.
A vast majority of the accumulated sediment is located along the Carmel River side of the reservoir. As a result, the Carmel River arm of the lower reservoir is now a permanent sediment storage area. To create this storage area, the river is being rerouted into San Clemente Creek by means of a “Reroute Channel.” Hence the magnificent gash in the earth below me.
Rock excavated from the Reroute Channel will be used to block the river from entering the sediment disposal area. This “Diversion Dike” will divert the river into the newly cut Reroute Channel. It is essentially a new ridge cutting across the valley floor.
Whew. Needless to say, reengineering an entire river is no small thing. And, to be honest, witnessing it is a bit overwhelming.
Curiously, the river itself is currently nowhere to be found. After studying the landscape for a while I finally find it. The Carmel River flows through a black feeding tube lashed to the far canyon wall.
I continue along the ridge until I’m directly across the valley from the partially dismantled dam. From here, you can see the new state-of-the-art step pools. Set into the savaged earth like giant teeth, the steps look tremendously unnatural.
It occurs to me that this stretch of river will always lack the pristine, perfect organization of nature. Once we disrupt something so complex and fragile, we can never truly reset it. We continue to try, but it’s like solving God’s equations with a crayon clenched in our fist.
And here is my old nemesis, the San Clemente Dam. He looks like an old man gnawed away by syphilis. The 16,000-pound pneumatic hammer happily chews away at his face. The engineers estimate he will be completely gone by the end of the month.
The dam is slated for completion at the end of 2015. Biologists expect the number of spawning steelhead to double the first year—to yes, only about 40. Since the price tag to remove the dam was $83 million, each of those saved fish will cost about $2 million.
Considering it costs $2.1 million to keep one soldier in Afghanistan for a year, I call it money well spent.
Besides, this is not just about the Carmel River. It’s about precedent. The last major dam removal in California occurred in 1970—the 50-foot Sweasey Dam in Humboldt County. Who knows? Maybe this will open the floodgates for a statewide revolution of wild water.
Ryan Masters is a hiker, surfer, diver, journalist, poet and musician who grew up running wild in the Santa Cruz Mountains and has lived all over the world at one time or another. He lives in Santa Cruz and writes a regular column, Goat Trails, for Hilltromper.