The San Clemente Dam Removal Project, Reasons to Celebrate and Lessons to Learn

By Gabriela Alberola

The groundbreaking ceremony welcoming the start of the San Clemente Dam Removal project took place on June 21st among a varied group of supporters that included government officials, local residents, scientists, and representatives from management agencies, private organizations, and NGOs. The dam removal project, which is the largest in California history, seeks to solve the public safety threat posed by the aging structure, as well as to restore to health a portion of the majestic Carmel River.  Based on a rare public-private partnership, and strongly driven by stakeholder input, this remarkable project will soon come to fruition after decades in the making.

San Clemente Dam was built in 1921 as a water storage reservoir, but it has not been used for that purpose since 2003. In the meantime, the reservoir has been filling up with sediment, currently holding over 2.5 million cubic yards of it. Additionally, the dam wall has been deemed unsafe, as it could potentially collapse in the event of a strong earthquake or a large flood.  The total cost of the San Clemente Dam Removal and Carmel River Reroute project has been estimated at $84 million. As the public safety issue could be resolved by solely strengthening the dam in place, the owners of the dam, California American Water, will contribute $49 million, which is the estimated cost of strengthening the wall. Removing the dam, however, will provide additional benefits, such as improving habitat for two threatened species, restoring the natural sediment flow, and reducing beach erosion. A partnership with the State Coastal Conservancy, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, and the Planning and Conservation League (PCL) is providing the additional support and funding to completely remove the dam and achieve a wider set of goals to both solve the public safety issue and improve the health of the river.

In my role as PCL’s Community Outreach Coordinator Intern in 2012, I was very fortunate to participate in this project as the last bits and pieces of the planning, funding, and permitting for the San Clemente Dam removal project were carefully being put into place. I participated in a series of forums and meetings in order to both provide information and obtain input from stakeholders. Throughout the different stages of planning, a variety of designs and funding options were evaluated, and environmental studies and permit applications were prepared and presented to the public; as a result, residents, scientists, permitting entities, and other stakeholders were able to weigh in with questions, comments, and suggestions, effectively shaping the final project design. It was not an easy process; despite a general consensus that both the detrimental effects of the dam and a potential collapse of the dam wall were important issues that needed to be addressed, opinions varied about the design, the acceptable costs, the expected benefits, and the urgency of the issues. It was 1992 when the Division of Safety of Dams issued the order mandating that San Clemente Dam’s public safety issues be addressed, and it took twenty-one years of arduous work for the project to finally break ground.

I have been interested in dams for quite some time, and working in the Carmel River and with the San Clemente Dam provided me with an incredible opportunity to study various social and environmental aspects associated with dams. As a child growing up in Panama, I learned that dams were synonymous with progress; dams provided cost-effective solutions for electricity generation, water storage, navigation, and flood control, and as a bonus, they were regarded as clean and environmentally friendly.   However, after a field trip to a dry river bed below a dam site during my freshman year at the University of Panama, I began to take interest in the many environmental and social impacts of dams. By altering the flow of water, dams fundamentally affect the structure and function of river ecosystems. Dams are associated with  severe environmental impacts, such as reductions in richness and distribution of fish and plants; alterations to the sediment regime which in turn affect habitat, water quality, and flood response; and they pose potential, immediate risk to neighboring communities in case of structural failure.  Additionally, dam projects often disrupt the livelihood of neighboring communities, and have displaced up to 80 million people worldwide. While countries that built large dams in the first half of the 20th century, such as the United States, are now seeing a rising trend in dam removal and river restoration projects, many regions of the world are still building large, often controversial dams. Frequently, the environmental and social costs of dams are minimized or completely ignored by dam construction projects. Dam removal projects, such as San Clemente, are teaching us that we have to come to terms with the fact that the adverse, costly effects of dams cannot be simply wished away; we will need to deal with them responsibly at some point.

As the world reconsiders the costs and benefits of dams, it is likely that more obsolete structures will be slated for decommissioning and removal in the coming years. Hopefully, dam removal projects will also inform the management of undammed rivers and raise awareness of the many hidden costs of dams. Although future dam removal projects will require specific designs and partnerships to suit their needs, the San Clemente Dam removal project has paved the way and stands as a model for future dam removal projects. Although the groundwork for the project is just starting, we’ve already come a long way; we came together as a community to discuss complex, wide-ranging environmental and social topics, and came up with creative, thorough solutions to restore the Carmel River.

The San Clemente Dam Removal Project and Carmel River Reroute project is scheduled to be completed in 2015.  For more information, you may visit the project page at

Originally from Panama City, Panama, Gabriela Alberola currently lives in Monterey Bay where she works as the Research Coordinator for CSU Monterey Bay’s Biogeochemistry Lab. She has a M.S. degree in Coastal and Watershed Science and Policy, and she worked as PCL’s Community Outreach Coordinator for the San Clemente Dam Removal project in 2011-2012.