Water district biologist: 'Don't tear down Los
Published: November 30, 2012
WHILE FEDERAL wildlife
officials are calling for the removal of Los Padres Dam to
improve conditions in the Carmel River for steelhead trout, a
fisheries biologist who works for the Monterey Peninsula Water
Management District said he believes removing the dam would
actually make it harder for the fish to survive in the river.
During a tour this week of two of Monterey County’s engineering
marvels — Los Padres Dam and San Clemente Dam — Kevan Urquhart
shared his views on several dam-related topics.
The two dams have helped to provide the Monterey Peninsula with
water for nearly a century. When they were built, they solved
existing water shortages. But today, one dam has been rendered
useless by silt and the other is on a hit list. Meanwhile, the
water shortage persists.
Because he works for a government agency that strives to
“manage, augment and protect” local water resources such as the
Carmel River and its reservoir — and because he’s considered an
expert on the steelhead who live there — Urquhart knows more
about the ecology and the politics of the two dams than most
More water, not less
Even if a desal plant gets built, Urquhart is opposed to the
idea of taking down Los Padres Dam. Instead he wants to see the
reservoir behind it dredged, which would add 800 acre-feet of
water to its existing 1,475-acre-foot capacity, allowing more
water to be released and keeping the Carmel River flowing during
Currently, the MPWMD rescues thousands of fish from the river
as it shrinks during dry weather, but “if the reservoir is
dredged — and the dam remains — the need for fish rescues would
be drastically reduced,” said Urquhart, who has worked for the
MPWMD since 2006.
Tearing down the dam would make it necessary to keep rescuing
fish in large numbers, he said, because there would be less
water in the river during dry months.
Cal Am’s customers pay for the fish rescues now, but if Cal Am lost the dam, someone else would need to fund steelhead rescue efforts, Urquhart said. There also wouldn’t be enough water to keep the MPWMD’s fish rearing facility operating.
San Clemente is different
After visiting Los Padres Dam, the tour followed a narrow and
twisting dirt road from the end of San Clemente Drive to the San
Clemente Dam, which is scheduled to be removed for the seismic
risk it poses to downstream residents. The bumpy route literally
clings to the side of a sleep slope as it snakes its way up a
canyon densely packed with sycamores, oaks and maples. Along the
way, the road passes the pint-sized Old Chinese Dam, which
preceded San Clemente Dam.
While some question the need to tear down San Clemente Dam, Urquhart said he believes it does represent a significant safety risk, particularly for the residents of Camp Stefani, a small neighborhood located on the north bank of the river just east of Carmel Valley Village.
San Clemente Dam holds very little water, but if it collapses
due to flooding or an earthquake, “a wall of mud and rubble
would wash down the river and destroy Camp Stefani,” he
suggested, adding that the state’s Division of Dam Safety
has determined San Clemente Dam is “the most unsafe dam that
remains up in California.”
Urquhart said that in 1995, the river rose so high after heavy
rains that there was a genuine fear the dam would collapse. And
he insisted that a seemingly easy solution — like simply poking
a hole in it to relieve the water behind it — is too dangerous.
He supports the removal of San Clemente Dam.
Reaching a compromise no easy task
Perhaps the greatest stumbling block to solving the Monterey
Peninsula’s water challenges, though, isn’t the region’s dry
climate, unforgiving terrain or endangered species. The
challenge is coming up with a reasonable compromise to address
the many political issues — and interested parties — that have a
stake in the future of the river. Urquhart said he believes all
parties must compromise.
“Regardless what side of the issues you are on, a set of
compromises will best serve the community,” Urquhart added. “The
issues are complex, and there is no perfect solution. But if we
continue to be a fractious community, we will reap the results
in January 2017 when we are on severe water rationing. It will
affect our lifestyles and our economy. The public needs to
realize this — the axe really will fall.”