The largest dam removal and river restoration project in California history is reaping rewards in the form of ESA-listed Carmel River steelhead happily spawning upstream of the old San Clemente Dam site. Last summer the 106-foot-tall, 7,000-square-foot dam was demolished, allowing fish access to 6.5 miles of “new” river.

California American Water, NOAA, and the state Coastal Conservancy all contributed funds and research into the effort. For scientists and government agencies however, the process is just beginning. San Clemente had loads of sediment piled up behind it. The river was rerouted at the dam site around the entire sediment mountain to avoid a flood washing it all downstream and hampering spawning activity and riparian rehabilitation. Instead, the project placed silt and gravel piles, large woody debris, and streamside vegetation along the river to help aid the river’s natural healing.

“To me, this is the future, and that’s why it’s important to see if it functions like it’s supposed to. If we can [address sediment] we should have the fish come back,” NOAA fisheries research ecologist David Boughton said. Hundreds of dams around the state and country contain massive and concerning sediment loads. If successful, Boughton and other scientists hope the Carmel can provide a blueprint for future dam removal projects on such rivers.

Meanwhile, the Los Padres Dam sits at the other end of the newly liberated 6.5 miles of water. Currently Monterey Peninsula Water Management District is conducting a dam removal feasibility study to be completed in 2018.

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Tom Bie

Tom Bie is the founder, editor, and publisher of The Drake. He started the magazine in 1998 as an annual newsprint publication based in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. He then moved it to Steamboat, Colorado (1999), Boulder, Colorado (2001), and San Clemente, California (2004), as he took jobs as managing editor at Paddler, Senior Editor at Skiing, and Editor-in-Chief at Powder, respectively. Tom and The Drake are now both based in Denver, Colorado, where The Drake is finally all grows up(Swingers, 1996) to a quarterly magazine.

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