The San Clemente Dam removal project is back on. Maybe.

Damned If They Don’t: Cal Am is scrambling to secure funding for the $84 million removal of San Clemente Dam (left) and get approval from 16 permitting agencies.

California American Water is trumpeting its latest decision to do the right thing and take down the San Clemente Dam. But the Nov. 13 announcement marks the company’s second about-face on the obsolete dam’s fate this year – and may not be the final word.

About two years ago, Cal Am initiated a collaborative planning effort to remove the San Clemente. But earlier this year, the company rattled partner agencies and environmentalists by announcing it would strengthen the obsolete dam instead.

Originally built to hold 2,000 acre-feet of water, the 88-year-old dam is now choked with so much muck it can only hold 125 acre-feet. In 1992, the state Department of Water Resources’ Division of Safety of Dams warned it could crumble in a big storm or earthquake, placing the downstream area at risk of catastrophic flooding.

A 2007 environmental impact report included two potential solutions: strengthening the dam with steel-reinforced concrete, at a cost of about $50 million, or removing it and re-routing the river around the accumulated silt, at $84 million. (Today’s price tag may be more modest, factoring in lower recession construction costs.) Cal Am leaned toward the cheaper option, but environmental groups wanted the dam removed to improve the river ecosystem.

In early 2008 Cal Am agreed to the dam removal project on the condition that public and private sources make up the $34 million cost difference. But in February 2009, Cal Am announced it was reverting to the buttressing project, citing the state funding freeze and a liability clog.

Its partners, however, weren’t happy with the reversal. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries service indicated the buttressing project could be rejected if it’s found to adversely impact threatened steelhead. The Carmel River Watershed Conservancy pressured the state to reject dam strengthening. And the California Coastal Conservancy advised it would make other plans for the $20 million already secured or requested for the dam removal project, warning that it couldn’t commit to the same level of funding in the future.

So Cal Am’s recent decision to renew the dam removal effort – if it can secure the additional funding, find another entity to assume liability and future site ownership, and get approval from 16 permitting agencies – may be more political calculation than change of heart.

Cal Am spokeswoman Catherine Bowie says outcry from environmental groups and elected officials inspired the turnaround. “Everybody came out and said, ‘Let’s try and make this happen,’” she says. “Knowing there’s a potential for federal funding made a big difference.”

The Coastal Conservancy has backed off its threat to end financial support for the project. Project Manager Laura Engeman says the agency is still willing to spend $3 million for dam removal planning, but another $6 million in previously committed funding remains in limbo, and the agency is re-submitting grant applications for additional funding.

Cal Am’s February reversal carried another price: “It cost us an opportunity for federal stimulus money,” Engeman says.

Federal support is critical to the dam removal effort. “We’re trying to really push it forward and get the timeline moving again,” NOAA Fisheries Project Manager Joyce Ambrosius says. “We’re all very interested in making it happen sooner rather than later.”

Cal Am and its collaborators have committed one year to smoothing out the dam removal plan’s kinks. “If it doesn’t work out, obviously we’ll have to re-evaluate,” Bowie says.

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