Fish, Frogs, and People to Benefit from Biggest Dam-Removal Project in California History

San Clemente Dam in California, now coming down. Photo via sanclementedamremoval.org

Today marks a historic event for California rivers: the launch of the biggest dam removal project in state history.

Over the next 28 months, the beautiful Carmel River will be set free to flow more naturally for 70 percent of its length as the 106-foot (32.3 meter) San Clemente Dam is dismantled.

Downstream of the dam, threatened fish and frogs will get a new lease on life as critical habitats open up. And some 1,500 households will enjoy greater safety as the dam’s risk of failure during a major earthquake or flood event disappears.

Built in 1921 to store drinking water for the burgeoning population of Monterey County, the San Clemente Dam is a concrete arch structure located 18.5 miles (29.8 kilometers) upstream from the Pacific Ocean.

While built for a good cause, the dam’s reservoir has lost 95 percent of its original water storage capacity due to the build-up of silt and sediment carried in by the Carmel River.  Historically, the river carried that sediment load downstream, keeping its channel functioning well and replenishing coastal beaches.  But the dam trapped the sediment in the reservoir, causing it to fill – a common problem with dams worldwide.

The Monterey Peninsula now relies primarily on groundwater for its drinking water supply.

Meanwhile, the dam became a safety hazard as its risk of failure increased.  After the state of California’s division on dam safety declared San Clemente “seismically unsafe,” California American Water, the public utility that owns the dam, assessed its options for reducing the dam’s threats.  Taking into account cost, environmental benefits and other factors, the idea of tearing the dam down rose to the top of the list.

San Clemente Creek
San Clemente Creek, where the Carmel River will be routed while the dam is taken out. Photo via sanclementedamremoval.org

The project will open up 25 contiguous miles of unimpaired spawning and rearing habitat for a threatened run of steelhead trout.  Like salmon, steelhead spend most of their lives in the ocean but move upstream to spawn and grow in coastal rivers and streams.  Big dams like San Clemente block their migration and destroy their habitats.

Over the decades, the combination of dams, diversions, and urban development has caused the population of steelhead to plummet.  In 1997, federal officials listed the fish as threatened.

For steelhead on the central California coast, “removing this dam is the single best thing you can do for their recovery,” says Samuel P. Schuchat, Executive Officer of the California State Coastal Conservancy.

The dam removal will also restore the natural movement of sediment downstream toward the sea, replenish sand on Carmel Beach, and improve habitat for the California Red-Legged frog, the largest native frog in the western United States and now federally listed as threatened, as well.

The Carmel too will enjoy a revival.

In a gentle ode to the river, John Steinbeck wrote in his classic 1945 work, Cannery Row:  “The Carmel is a lovely little river.  It isn’t very long but in its course it has everything a river should have.”

Indeed, over its 36-mile run from the Santa Lucia Mountains to the sea, the Carmel flows through a diverse array of habitats, from mixed evergreen forests and montane chaparral to coastal prairie and sand dunes.

The first stage of the project involves some innovative engineering to re-route the Carmel River into San Clemente Creek so that the sediment behind the dam can be stabilized to remain safely in place.   The re-routing will allow the river to resume its more natural, pre-dam flow to the sea.

Once the river is diverted away from the sediment-filled reservoir, dismantling of the dam will begin.

The $83 million project has garnered a wide range of support, including that of the conservation groups American Rivers, the Carmel River Watershed Conservancy, the Nature Conservancy, and Trout Unlimited, as well as the federal Bureau of Reclamation and Fish & Wildlife Service, among others.

California American Water, the dam owner, will pay $49 million of the total cost; the California State Coastal Conservancy and the National Marine Fisheries Service will raise the additional $34 million through public and private sources.  The Nature Conservancy is contributing $1 million to the project.

In addition, California American Water is donating 928 acres (375 hectares) of property around the dam to the federal Bureau of Land Management, which in turn is working with the Monterey parks district to develop recreational trails for use by the public.

San Clemente Dam under construction in 1921.
San Clemente Dam under construction in 1921. Photo via sanclementedamremoval.org

If all goes according to plan, both the project’s ecological engineering features as well as its public-private partnership may serve as a model for other river restoration efforts across the state and nation.

“This is an opportunity to essentially restore an entire river system from top to bottom,” says Schuchat of the state coastal conservancy.

“You take the dam out and suddenly you’ve got a natural free-flowing river again – and that’s just really exciting. “

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society. She is co-creator of Change the Course, the national freshwater conservation and restoration campaign being piloted in the Colorado River Basin.

Help restore water to the Colorado River by joining Change the Course. Sign up online or text ‘River’ to 77177.

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and author of Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity. From 2009-2015, she served as Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society. Sandra is also co-creator of Change the Course, the national water stewardship initiative awarded the 2017 US Water Prize for restoring billions of gallons of water to depleted rivers and wetlands. The recipient of several honorary degrees, she works to bridge science, policy, and practice to promote innovative ways of securing water to meet both human and ecosystem needs.
  • Matt Stoecker

    Great article Sandra!

    We hope Stanford University will recognize the many benefits they would enjoy with removing their antiquated and destructive dam, just as owners of San Clemente Dam are now.

    Nice work!

    Matt Stoecker


    Beyond Searsville Dam.


  • DamNation Film

    Please check out the trailer for our coming film about this growing dam removal movement:



  • Susan Stienstra

    Very encouraging news!

  • Howard Joe

    What is the plan for keeping all of the sediment in place? Installing more concrete? Is there no way to release all of that sediment gradually during the removal of the dam?

  • Julia Batchev

    The logistics of this project took a lot of community involvement. I was proud of our citizens.

  • Patrick Read

    I don’t think the public should have to pay forty some million dollars for dam removal, remember this dam was built by the big four to bring water to the Del Monte Hotel. The public has been paying all along, Cal Am has been benefiting all along with no regard to their infrastructure.

  • Joshua Reed-Doyle

    While I agree with the premise, I was flabbergasted and appalled by the tactics initially planned for execution of this project. Without the grassroots organizing and resistance of the residents of the Cachagua valley, this dam removal project would have been an exercise in profiteering for the private companies involved. The initial plan was to use Cachagua road instead of the San Clemente Dam Access Road, a plan that not only doesn’t make much logical sense, but would cost an extra arm and a leg at the expense of the Cachaguan residents’ safety and convenience (in addition to threatening several businesses’ well-being, including a water company). The way in which these public projects are undertaken is increasingly more dangerous and profit driven… all under the guise of saving the environment. It’s imperative that all projects such as this have citizen oversight.

  • arjun singh chouhan

    I am so happy; I am so sad! I’m happy to know that somewhere in this earth there are people who really are concerned about the environment and its conservation. I’m sad that out here in this country of mine, which has a history and supposed to have a culture of WORSHIPING nature whatever is being done in the name of development is largely being done without the slightest concern for the environment. We too have ministeries of environment and conservation and forest and water and everything one can think of, but in reality almost all of their actions come across as wholy contradictory to what they are supposed to be doing.
    On the whole, however, I’m really happy. You know why, because once the West (read the US) makes a statement about ANYTHING, the world including all the whose who of my country, begins to believe in it. Therefore, I see a ray of hope that in my country too real respect for the environment will become a reality instead of just tales of a society that USED TO respect nature 🙂

    • Arjun, thank you for writing, but don’t forget that your country leads in some water practices as well — in community -scale rainwater harvesting, for example, and also in some innovative, community-based approaches to groundwater conservation and management. It’s always easy to feel that we’re not doing enough in our home countries (because we’re not), but there are good things happening. – Sandra


    Congratulations on this river restoration project !! We have taken advantage in Spain of USA’s efforts to restore rivers , where 350 little and medium-sized dams have been torn down for environmental purposes so far: http://www.riosconvida.es

  • arjun singh chouhan

    Hey Sandra,
    thanks for the encouragement : ) What you say about is true, but it is also a fact that in my country many rivers are dying… I’ve observed myself that in the last about four decades close to a dozen perennial rivers in central part of the country gone bone dry. And one of the main reason behind this has been pure materialistic greed. Still, as I said before I’m hopeful : )

  • Elihu Gevirtz

    Great news!!!

  • We did not produce any videos of this project, but you might check with the organizations cited in the article.


    I can hardly wait!!

  • Scot

    I have watched the river for 50-years. The dam silted in because an airstrip was built upstream, allowing erosion. Now were are cutting a channel to bypass the old dam. The new stream bed is sand and soil. Winter rains make the Carmel river into a raging torrent.
    May I make a prediciton? The new stream bed will erode, and wash down stream,. It will cause major damage to the stream bed and habitat below the dam. Carmel river trout do not live in the sand bed stream of the old dam. They need shade and rocky bottoms. The silt blow out will cause major flooding and property loss downstream.
    I predict the dam removal will hurt more than it helps. It could become an eviornmental disaster. I hope I am wrong

    A decent fish ladder would be a better solution.

  • obsidian

    So, Now the state is in a massive drought and you blew up your dams for fish and frogs.
    What do we do now?

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