San Clemente Dam (photo: Sanclementedamremoval.org)
Twenty years after California officials determined that the privately-owned 92-year-old San Clemente Dam in the Carmel Valley had to be either fixed up or torn down, demolition of the 10-story-high structure has begun.
But it won’t be paid for by the owner, California American Water Company (Cal Am).
California’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) rejected arguments from its own Division of Ratepayer Advocates (DRA) that Cal Am shareholders should foot the bill, originally estimated at $138 million, because of “the company’s imprudent handling of the sediment build-up behind the dam and failure to collect depreciation funds sufficient to cover the dam’s removal.”
Acting DRA Director Joe Como argued in 2011 that Monterey peninsula residents hadn’t received any benefit from the dam since 2003 and wouldn’t see any benefits to their water service once it was torn down. “To ask customers to pay for Cal Am’s corporate mistakes is unjustified,” Como wrote. “The PUC should reject Cal Am’s plan and send the bill to shareholders.”
That didn’t happen. Instead, a deal was cut that passes $48 million of the bill to Cal Am customers in Monterey County. The State Coastal Conservancy will kick in another $25 million and $10 million will come from federal grants and private donations to cover the reconfigured cost of $83 million.
The three-year demolition project will remove a dam at risk of collapsing in an earthquake—swamping 1,500 homes and public buildings—and open up 25 miles of upstream tributaries and creeks to endangered steelhead trout. The Carmel River will be permanently rerouted to a nearby creek and a vast accumulation of sediment in the reservoir behind the dam will be covered with native plants.
In addition to benefiting steelhead trout, the dam removal will help replenish sand at Carmel Beach and improve the habitat for the California Red-Legged frog, now federally listed as threatened.
Environmentalists are hoping that California’s largest dam deconstruction to date will spur similar ventures elsewhere in the state, where 1,400 dams 25 feet or higher have disrupted habitats and threatened the existence of endangered plants and animals.