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Dammed If You Do Cal Am’s decision to strengthen the San Clemente Dam risks a bigger ratepayer burden.

Dammed If You Do

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Posted: Thursday, March 5, 2009 12:00 am | Updated: 9:47 pm, Thu May 16, 2013.

California American Water had planned to re-route the Carmel River, but it recently changed its own course – announcing that it will strengthen the San Clemente Dam with steel-reinforced concrete, rather than remove it as previously planned.

The water company scuttled the $84 million dam removal and river re-route project it had been working on for almost two years because of unresolved liability issues, coupled with the recent freeze of state payments to bond-funded projects.

“It was really important to us that we wouldn’t be liable for the removal process, because then our ratepayers end up being liable for what happens out there,” Cal Am spokeswoman Catherine Bowie says.

“TAKING OUT THE DAM IS MUCH BETTER FOR THE STEELHEAD.”

Cal Am’s decision to pursue the $50 million strengthening project, however, is a gamble. The state Coastal Conservancy, which was working to raise the extra money needed to remove the dam, has advised that it will return or redirect $9 million in secured funds and withdraw grant applications for $11 million more.

“We do not expect to be able to make the same level of funding commitment in the future,” writes Conservancy Executive Officer Sam Schuchat in a Feb. 26 letter to Cal Am President Kent Turner. “In addition, we would not expect to be able to assist with a dam removal project if dam removal were required through a regulatory permitting process.”

In other words, if any of 16 permitting agencies rejects Cal-Am’s strengthening project, the water company – under state orders to deal with the obsolete dam one way or another – might have to remove the dam anyway. Without help from the Conservancy, Cal Am could have to pass the estimated $34 million difference on to ratepayers.

The long delay, meanwhile, could snuff out the local steelhead population.

“Initially, we’ve already told [Cal Am] that this buttressing project could cause jeopardy – extinction to the [population] – which would mean that the project could not go forward as they propose,” says Joyce Ambrosius of National Marine Fisheries Service. “In our initial analysis, we believe taking out the dam is much better for the steelhead.”

The dam safety project’s environmental impact report states that both removing and reinforcing the dam would disturb steelhead habitat in the short term but improve it in the long term. (The strengthening project involves installing an upgraded fish ladder.)

But environmentalists strongly prefer dam removal, which would restore the natural flow of the river. As it is now, the accumulating sediment threatens to cut off spawning habitat for steelhead and scours out the river channel downstream.

“Buttressing is just going to forever create a sediment management challenge,” says Monica Hunter, Central Coast Watersheds program manager for the Planning and Conservation League Foundation. “It just doesn’t add up at this point.”

Cal Am’s description of the liability impasse is also up for interpretation.

“We don’t necessarily agree with everything that’s in the press release regarding the inability to reach consensus over liability issues,” Conservancy Project Manager Laura Engeman says. “The Conservancy’s perspective is that it was still an ongoing effort, and we believed it could be resolved.”

Frank Emerson of the Carmel River Steelhead Association says Cal Am’s decision does no favors for fish or ratepayers.

“I would urge Cal Am to seriously reconsider this decision, because if the final permitting requires that they remove San Clemente, they’re gonna be on their own and stuck with all of the liability anyway,” he says. “We are going to seriously make an effort to make sure that dam is not buttressed, but removed.”

Paula Landis of the California Department of Water Resources’ Division of Dam Safety, however, says her department is likely to issue a notice of determination – moving the strengthening project forward – if Cal Am’s proposal meets its safety criteria.

Built in 1921, the dam has become so choked with sediment that it now holds less than 10 percent of its historic water capacity – threatening to bury the river in muck if it breaks. In 1992, the state water resources agency ordered Cal Am to upgrade its aging dam to make it safe in the event of a big flood or earthquake.

“The department has been concerned about the safety of people and property below the dam,” Landis says, “and we’re looking forward to a resolution.”

Bowie, meanwhile, rejects the notion that Cal Am’s decision to strengthen rather than remove the dam could leave ratepayers holding a bigger bill.

“These scenarios are dependant on a lot of ‘ifs,’” she says. “We have a finalized EIR on the project. The message from the state and federal government is, ‘This is a project that can be permitted: Go forward with it.’”

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