Carmel River FREE

Carmel River FREE

If the Monterey County Board of Supervisors votes yes tomorrow to approve the Carmel River FREE project, it will be the final stamp of approval needed on a project with massive implications that has been about 25 years in the making. 

The project—formally the Carmel River Floodplain Restoration and Environmental Enhancement Project—will effectively re-create the natural floodplain at the mouth of the Carmel River. It started after disasters of long ago, going back to floods in the El Niño winter of 1997-98 when the mouth of Carmel Valley flooded, and to 1995 when the Carmel River overflowed and tore out the Highway 1 bridge. 

The question: Next time the Carmel River inevitably overflows, where will all that water go? 

The answer: Into a new floodplain, a human-designed ecological solution that can achieve the functionality of a natural floodplain without destroying human-made structures and agriculture in its path. 

Specifically, that means removing roughly 1,470 linear feet of earthen levees on the south side of the Carmel River channel, on property owned by Big Sur Land Trust; grading about 103 acres to restore functionality as a floodplain during big rains; and grading to elevate 23 acres of existing farmland above the 100-year floodplain elevation, to avoid potential damage or destruction and preserve agriculture. There would also be a new overflow bridge on Highway 1, replacing an existing embankment—this will create hydrologic connectivity on either side of the highway. 

It's been a complicated plan to make, with construction work to be done on land owned by California State Parks, the Monterey Peninsula Regional Parks District and Big Sur Land Trust. All agencies now have memorandums of understanding they are ready to sign off on. 

"This project is one of the most extensive and important multi-benefit flood protection and riparian habitat restoration efforts on the Central Coast," according to Big Sur Land Trust. 

The Board of Supervisors already approved an environmental impact report, required by the California Environmental Quality Act, for this project in January. The vote on Tuesday, June 15 is not on a plan, but the project itself. 

"Tomorrow, it’s more of a practical step and less of a legal step," says Management Analyst Shandy Carroll from the county Resource Management Agency. 

Part of that practical step is choosing which one of the alternatives laid out in the EIR to proceed with, and the answer is obvious, Carroll says. "The one we’re going to ask them to approve tomorrow is preferred project, described in the EIR, which meets the goals and is the most economically feasible," she says. "With Carmel River FREE it really is a clear-cut decision."

If approved tomorrow, construction can begin in 2023, and be completed in the fall of 2024.

The total estimated cost of the project is $42 million. 

The county has received $16.7 million in grant funds toward the project, with grant applications for another $28.1 million currently pending. 

Sara Rubin loves long public meetings, red pens and reading (on newsprint). She has been editor of the Monterey County Weekly since 2016, and has been on staff since 2010.

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