Bill McKibben, author of "The End of Nature," writes: "Nothing is more exciting than the sight of once-dammed rivers flowing free again ... a spell broken, a curse lifted."
All right, Bill, I'm excited. The San Clemente Dam on the Carmel River, a two-hour drive from my home in Oakland, is coming down. It's the biggest dam removal project in the state, and it's on schedule. The river is being rerouted for half a mile, while the sediment behind the dam gets consolidated and secured. As the dam is dismantled piece by piece, the natural flow should be restored by October or November 2015.
The state Coastal Conservancy, National Marine Fisheries Service, Planning and Conservation League, Carmel River Steelhead Association -- along with California American Water, which owns the dam -- are all working together to bring a long-degraded river back to life.
Dams are the primary cause of fishery declines and ecosystem destruction in our watersheds and, except for the Consumnes, every major river in California is dammed and diverted one or many times. The Carmel dam removal project provides new momentum for removing dams throughout the state. Here is an example of genuine conservation. California Assemblyman Mark Stone calls the project "the first of its kind, a model for the future."
The Carmel River's halcyon days
The Carmel River begins its journey in the eastern slopes of the Santa Lucia Mountains, meandering about 35 miles before it empties into the sea south of Carmel. There's a brackish lagoon at Carmel River State Beach where hawks fly overhead, where egrets and herons hide in the reeds, and where ducks and coots are abundant as well. You can throw a stone from one side of the river to the other.
Robinson Jeffers and John Steinbeck immortalized the river in poetry and prose. In Jeffers' poem "Steelhead," a gypsy girl uses a "five-tined hay-fork" to spear steelhead. She gets caught, but willingly submits to her cowboy captor in the "willows full of warm grass."
In the early days, 10-pound steelies were legendary for their power and tenacity. Jack Galante, who owns Galante Vineyards in Cachagua, recalls great steelhead runs before the 1960s, before the river became degraded.
"You'd see these amazing steelhead. Fresh, clean water coming out. We'd spend hours swimming in the river. It changed drastically over the years. The flow rate seemed to go down."
"River in Ruin"
In the 1990s, the situation looked pretty bleak. In 1997, the national conservation organization American Rivers included the Carmel River on its infamous list -- "the 10 most endangered rivers in the United States."
In 2012, Ray Marsh, who spent joyful, youthful days on the river, published his cautionary tale "River in Ruin."
Marsh described the impacts of irresponsible growth on the Monterey Peninsula, an area known ironically for its environmental consciousness. The San Clemente Dam, the Los Padres Dam, as well as smaller dams, choked the flow of water. Vegetation died off. Banks eroded. Whole sections of the estuary went dry. Steelhead runs were decimated. Homeowners dumped old cars, rubble, and concrete blocks into the stream to reinforce the river banks. What water historian Sandra Postel wrote about dams in general applies directly to the Carmel: "Existing dams and river diversions have wiped out vital habitat, decimating fish populations and pushing numerous aquatic species to the brink of extinction. Reservoirs are silting up."
Today, however, there is hope. The Carmel River is no longer a mere appendage of market development, and the public recognizes the intrinsic value of a free-flowing river. With the dam removed, steelhead will gain unimpaired access to 25 miles of spawning and rearing habitats. Carmel beach sand will be replenished, and the habitat for the red-legged frogs will be restored.
We are beginning to learn, if only the hard way, that it is wiser to adjust to nature than to conquer it.
My fly rod and barbless hooks are packed. And I am working on a new fish-that-got-away story just in case I need it.
Paul Rockwell, a Montclair resident, is the former children's librarian with the Albany Library. He is parent coordinator of Gone Tubin', a float tube fishing club for youth." For more information, contact gonetubin2.org.