It’s been years upon years in the making, and there are still many years to go, and that’s assuming some necessary grant funding comes through. But the multi-year, multi-agency effort to transform the lower landscape of the Carmel River into a natural floodplain took a massive step forward Jan. 28 when the Monterey County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to approve the project’s final environmental impact report.

That project is known formally as the Carmel River Floodplain Restoration and Environmental Enhancement Project, and informally as Carmel River FREE. Rachel Saunders, director of conservation for the nonprofit Big Sur Land Trust, which owns the largest piece of the land in play, says thus far, the project has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars of staff time, partnership with multiple public agencies and private landowners (namely, Clint and Margaret Eastwood), courting of private donors and an ongoing hunt for grant funding. The end goal: To reduce flood risks and restore riverine habitat where natural and built environments intersect at the mouth of the Carmel River.

While Saunders has been working on the plan since 2006, Carmel River FREE’s origin story begins even earlier, back to the El Niño winter of 1997-1998 when the Carmel River spilled its banks and flooded the mouth of the valley. And in 1995, a storm caused such a rush of water in the river that the Highway 1 bridge was swept out to sea.

“This is a Rubik’s Cube of a project and it’s taken a long time to align all the pieces,” Saunders says. “But we also recognize that a multi-benefit, green infrastructure project requires you to be a long-distance runner.”

The project involves land owned, respectively, by BSLT, California Department of Parks and Recreation, Monterey Peninsula Regional Park District, and Clint and Margaret Eastwood, and is located at the downstream end of the Carmel River watershed. The project has two components that depend on each other.

The first, floodplain restoration, calls for removing about 1,470 linear feet of earthen levees on the south side of the Carmel River channel; grading about 100 acres to restore the site’s ecological function as a floodplain; grading to elevate about 23 acres of farmland above the 100-year floodplain elevation to create an agricultural preserve; and implementing a restoration management plan.

The second component consists of replacing a portion of Highway 1 embankment with a 360-foot causeway to accommodate flood flow and to restore connectivity between the project site and the Carmel Lagoon. Bonus: The causeway would also include a southbound left-turn lane at the Palo Corona Regional Park entrance and public trails.

If you want to see fish and water people happily geek out, I’d suggest you check out the video of the supes’ meeting from Jan. 28, item no. 27. You’ll see Lorin Letendre, president of the Carmel River Watershed Conservancy, telling the supervisors the project will do important things for threatened species resident in the Carmel River, improve the water quality for steelhead and red-legged frogs, and increase wetlands. Ken White, chair of the Carmel Area Wastewater District Board, called the cooperation on the project “a small miracle: Each group has had to recognize the issues each other group has and they’ve had to ameliorate and compromise, and compromise makes the world go around.” And Brian LeNeve, president of the Carmel River Steelhead Association, says it’s remarkable to have a flood control project that benefits the environment.

In approving the EIR on Jan. 28, the Board of Supervisors did not approve the entire project. The next steps in twisting the Rubik’s Cube: a continued march toward funding. Last spring, the county submitted an application to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for a $23 million grant. The county also applied to the Wildlife Conservation Board for $2.5 million to fund final design and help fund construction.

BSLT, meanwhile, raised $2 million from private donors to fund future restoration work.

Assuming the grant money comes in, construction could begin in late 2021 and be completed about 26 months later.

MARY DUAN writes Local Spin for Monterey County Weekly. Reach her at mary@mcweekly.com or follow her at twitter.com/maryrduan.

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