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  • Carmel River Watershed

    Carmel River Watershed

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Carmel River Watershed

The Carmel River is a tremendous asset to the residents of Carmel Valley, Carmel-by-the-Sea, and surrounding communities in Monterey County. The river is a natural resource that provides drinking water for residents of the Monterey Peninsula, habitat for endangered species including the California Red-legged Frog and Steelhead trout, and aesthetic and recreational values for the community. The Carmel River Watershed provides countless benefits to its neighbors in the Monterey Peninsula, and the management of its many resources and services is shared by a large and diverse group of stakeholders.

The Carmel River watershed provides the majority of the drinking water for residents of the watershed and surrounding communities. Water from the Carmel River has been exported to the Monterey Peninsula since 1882 when the first dam on the Carmel River was built. As the demand for water increased, two more dams were subsequently built. The San Clemente Dam was built in 1921, with a capacity of 1,300 acre feet. Las Padres Dam, with 3,200 acre feet of storage capacity, was completed in 1949. The San Clemente Dam became functionally non-operational due to siltation and was removed in 2015, while the Los Padres dam’s function is solely for habitat management.

Beginning in the 1950s, suburban development, groundwater pumping and other natural conditions including fire and drought, created conditions that resulted in extensive bank erosion, riparian habitat degradation, incision in the river channel, and a reduction of the rate at which groundwater infiltrates into the soil and recharges the aquifer. These conditions directly impacted flood events, and adversely impacted property and wildlife habitat in the watershed.

While flooding, bank erosion, and significant vegetation loss have occurred at various times, only recently have they become persistent, causing damage to the Valley’s resources and raising concern from residents. The origins of this instability are complex, and have been traced to a variety of causes that include the particular terrain and flow regimen of the River, early clearing and grazing of the Valley for agriculture, impoundment of water and sediment retention at San Clemente and Los Padres dams, development of the floodplain, vegetation removal, groundwater pumping, fire suppression in the surrounding watershed, and periodic floods and droughts. In summary, over a two hundred year period, the watershed has been disrupted by extensive damage to the physical environment, adversely affecting private property, fish and wildlife resources, visual quality and recreational values.


RCDMC has been engaged in watershed planning and coordination in the Carmel Valley over the past two decades, primarily in the late 1990’s during initial Watershed Action Plan development and since 2010 thanks to Watershed Coordination grant funding from the CA State Department of Conservation. The RCD worked closely with partners in the Carmel River Task Force to update the 2005 Watershed Assessment and Action Plans, to provide landowner project consultations, promote Watershed volunteer work days, and coordinate development of new projects in the Carmel Valley. The RCD is currently partnering with Trout Unlimited to support the design development and permitting for several fish passage and habitat improvement projects on Carmel River tributaries with volunteer private landowners. This work is supported in part by the State Coastal Conservancy and Department of Fish and Wildlife.