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One River With Not Enough Water for People and Fish

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By Wes Sims | KUSP News
John Steinbeck described the Carmel River as “a lovely little river that has everything a river should have.” Today, though, the river doesn’t have enough water for the people of the Monterey Peninsula and the local steelhead trout. Our Public Insight Network asked for more information about the status of the river.

Steelhead trout is a salt-water species that returns to the fresh-water habitat of its birth to reproduce, before swimming back out to sea. On the Monterey Peninsula, that spawning bed is the Carmel River. But Catherine Bowie, with California American Water, Cal-Am, says dry weather and over drafting of surface water have severely diminished the steelhead population. That and the impediment of the San Clemente Dam, which should be removed by next year.

“Experts estimate that the run of adult steelhead in the Carmel River used to be between 12,000 and 20,000 a year. In 2009, the adult steelhead county was 94.”

Not Even a Bite

“When my dad was a young man in the late ‘30’s, early ‘40’s he figured he could hook and land 150 fish a year out of the Carmel River. My son never caught a fish out of the Carmel River.”

Carmel Valley native Brian LeNeve is president of the Carmel River Steelhead Association, a group that helps rescue steelhead trout when water levels fall too low for them to get over the river’s two dams.

Photo: Wes Sims

Photo: Wes Sims

“The steelhead association built what’s called a ladder and trap. The fish go up a fish ladder into a big holding tank, and then they’re sucked into a truck and actually transported over the dam.”

Volunteers take the fish to the Sleepy Hollow Steelhead Rearing Facility, operated by the Carmel River Watershed Conservancy, until they’re strong enough to be released into the ocean. But CalAm’s biggest challenge is ORDER 95-10, a cease-and-desist mandate from the State Water Resources Control Board, to make significant reductions in the amount of water taken from the river by the end of 2016.

“It was the drought of ’91-’92 that led to the complaint filed with the state about the pumping on the river,” Bowie says. “So right now our water supply is being limited further and further by this state order. We are currently under the cutbacks as we speak. It goes down gradually until we get to 2016 at which point it really drops off significantly.”

Managing the Peninsula’s Water Supply

The agency charged with making this happen is the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District.

“We have a management role over Cal-Am to make sure they don’t exceed their production limits that have been set by the state.”

General Manager Dave Stoldt says those limits will be met eventually … maybe by 2019 … but certainly not by the state’s deadline of 2016.

“Our agency turned around shortly after October, 2009 and sued the State Water Board and said, the order is too draconian, this is a health and safety issue. Cal-Am also sued the state, saying, you didn’t follow proper procedures.”

Endangered Fish Habitat on Tap

Cal-Am’s Catherine Bowie says water customers can at least help the steelhead trout by using less water.

“This summer in particular it’s going to be really important to think about the habitat on the Carmel River before you turn on your sprinklers or drip irrigation system even, because Keeping as much water as possible in the river in the summertime is very important to those species in the environment.”

As to how Cal-Am and the Monterey Water Peninsula Water District will ultimately fill the demands of water users, they’re taking another look at a technology that was rejected by voters a decade ago: desalination.

If there’s a part of the Monterey Bay area water story you’d like KUSP to report on, submit your thoughts at kusp.org/pin

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