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Karen Telleen-Lawton: Work Begins on Historic San Clemente Dam Removal Project

Excitement — and considerable noise — are in the air, as the largest dam-removal project in California history just began in Carmel Valley. The San Clemente Dam removal project will run three years, after which scientists and residents will begin to examine short- and long-term consequences on native animal repopulation and flood protection. Its success may breathe hope into Santa Barbara County’s creeks, where three-fourths of the stream habitat is blocked by impediments.

Despite its impeded state — 95 percent filled with silt — not everyone was an early advocate of San Clemente’s removal.

When it was declared unsafe against earthquakes 20 years ago, the California American Water Company preferred a cheaper buttressing alternative. The National Marine Fisheries Service indicated its likely disapproval, since the dam blocked the migration of federally endangered steelhead trout.

Two events eventually coalesced to tip the scales for removal. One was the action of U.S. Rep. Sam Farr, in whose district the dam sits. Farr renewed his call for removal. But a critical change was a new president for Cal Am, Robert McLean, who supported the removal project.

“By removing this dam,” he announced, “we’re removing a management issue and a fairly large liability. When the project is completed, there will be a natural flow of sediment, which will improve habitat downstream ...” As an engineer, he considers this the best and proudest moment of his career.

Removal of the stressed dam reduces McLean’s stress concerning downstream homes. About 1,500 homes will be safer, as the dam’s risk of failure in an earthquake or flood will be removed. Moreover, he shares the enthusiasm of many that the wildlife habitat will greatly improve, especially for endangered and threatened steelhead trout and red-legged frogs. The trout population has dwindled from 1,350 in 1965 to less that 250 in this section of the Carmel River’s reach, due in part to San Clemente’s blockage of fish migration.

The first half of the 20th century was the United States’ dam-building pinnacle. Most of the nation’s 79,000 dams were built then. Until not long ago, Santa Barbarans centurions were alive who could recall fishing decent-sized steelhead from our local creeks, in the days before flood-control dams became popular. Now, rare appearances of steelhead earn front-page photos.

Currently, the Flood Control District is in the midst of its own dam removal project. The Lillingston Debris Basin Dam, built in 1972 after the Romero Fire, is in its second of a four-year removal project. The goal is to re-establish Carpinteria Creek to its historical elevation, opening the watershed to steelhead residence, migration, and spawning.

Matt Stoecker, a biology student at UCSB in the 1990s, founded an ecology business to remove impediments to fish passage along our creeks. He had many successes here before returning to live near his natal stream, San Franciscito Creek in the Bay Area. There, he began advocating for removal of the Searsville Dam, a 65-foot tall silted-up dam on Stanford University’s property.

This is his current life’s work, but he still reminisces about his start in Santa Barbara.

“I’d be psyched to be an old man walking up Rattlesnake Creek decades from now and see a pair of huge steelhead jumping cascades and spawning in the clean cobbles,” he said. “It would be rewarding to have been a part of that process.”

San Clemente activists are probably feeling the same way about now.

— Karen Telleen-Lawton’s column is a mélange of observations spanning sustainability from the environment to finance, economics and justice issues. She is a fee-only financial advisor (www.DecisivePath.com) and a freelance writer (www.CanyonVoices.com). Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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