Cachagua residents give commissioners earful
over dam removal truck traffic
Published: September 14, 2012
AFTER CACHAGUA and Jamesburg residents
insisted they didn’t receive adequate notice about traffic
impacts that would be caused by the removal of San Clemente Dam,
the Monterey County Planning Commission this week postponed
making a decision on the $83 million project until at least Oct.
Before voting unanimously Sept. 12 for the delay, the planning
commission listened to more than three hours of testimony from
the county’s staff and the project’s manager about its benefits,
and from residents and business owners about its problems.
The project has been discussed at public meetings and in the
media for years, but some residents complained at the hearing
they only recently found out about its potential impact on their
community — and they asked the planning commission for more time
so they can study the details.
“I’m concerned about the haste with which this is being pushed
through,” resident Fidela Schneider said. “We are going to be
severely impacted. We haven’t had time to get advice. We’ve had
Heavy traffic, small roads
At the heart of the debate is why the project’s traffic would
be routed along Cachagua Road and not San Clemente Drive through
According to the project’s staff report, three potential routes
were considered, including two that utilized San Clemente Drive.
But one San Clemente Drive route was determined to have safety
issues, while the other would require the widening of 14,300
feet of existing dirt road, as well as the construction of
another 3,300 feet of dirt road. Also, one bridge would need to
be replaced, while two more would need to be constructed. And
it’s unclear if Cal Am even has an easement along San Clemente
Drive, which is a private road.
The Cachagua Road route, meanwhile, would require widening
11,500 feet of dirt road; building a 3,000-foot access road, and
making improvements at six locations along Cachagua road —
including one bridge — to allow large trucks to make sharp turns
and to sustain the weight of heavy equipment.
The project’s manager, Jeff Szytel of Water Systems Consulting
in San Luis Obispo, insisted the Cachagua Road route makes the
most sense. “I believe it has the safest access, the least
environmental impact, and is the most cost-effective,” Szytel
But a number of residents disagreed, particularly with the part
about safe access. Doug Gardener told commissioners that “these
roads are dangerous” and that “we average an accident a week.”
David Schiffman, meanwhile, said “the daily dangers of commuting
are a grim fact of life” in Upper Carmel Valley.
Winemaker Jack Galante said he’s worried construction traffic
will make it difficult for harvesting crews to reach his
vineyard. “It’s my understanding that some wineries haven’t been
notified [about the project],” said Galante, who also asked if
Cal Am is setting up a fund to cover any losses suffered by the
local business community.
Others residents simply questioned the justification for so
“The need for an 18-foot road is ridiculous,” resident Kevin
Klein said. “You bring in what [heavy equipment] you can bring
Residents testified they didn’t receive adequate notice about
the project, but county counsel Wendy Strimling confirmed the
water company has “fulfilled its legal requirements under CEQA
and the county planning process.”
While residents urged the planning commission to postpone the
start of the project, steelhead advocates warned that delays
could jeopardize the work — and, ultimately, harm steelhead.
“Removing the dam is the best seismic and ecological solution,”
said Loren Letendre, the president of the Carmel River Watershed
Conservancy. “We’ve tried to reach out to residents as best as
possible. If we wait too long, we’ll miss an entire year of
Brian LeNeve, who serves on the board of the Carmel River
Steelhead Association, also urged against delays, saying the
local steelhead population “is at a tipping point.”
After listening to the public, Szytel offered an olive branch.
“Our commitment to work with the Cachagua community does not end
with the permit process.”
But he also said Cal Am has little wiggle room. “The scope of
the project will not change,” he added.
Szytel also suggested delays to the project could be expensive.
“Grant sources have time constraints that could impact the
project’s funding,” he said. “Rarely when a project is delayed
does it cost less.”
Commissioner Keith Vandevere, though, was unmoved by pleas that
the project can’t wait.
“I’ve been waiting for years for this project to come before
us,” said Vandevere, a big supporter of removing the dam. “It
rubs me the wrong way when I’m told we have to act urgently
after so many years of foot-dragging.”
Vandevere also offered the applicant some advice: “The fastest
way possible to move this project forward is to get the Cachagua
community on board,” he added.
Constructed in 1921 and operated by Cal Am since 1966, the dam
was designed to store 1,425 acre-feet of water. But it hasn’t
been used since 2002 — in large part because 90 percent of its
capacity is filled with debris and sediment. It is also
considered a seismic safety hazard.
According to Cal Am’s website, the dam’s removal will not only
alleviate a significant safety risk, but allow steelhead
“unimpaired access to over 25 miles of natural spawning and
While most of the actual dismantling of the dam will occur from
2013 to 2015, the applicant had hoped to begin construction on
an access road this month. But work can’t start until the
planning commission approves the project’s permit.