Searching for good news about the health of the planet at the beginning of a new year that could bring the opposite, I realized that one story was right in front of my nose. I had dismissed it as “just work,” something I do with other environmental projects from the years I worked for the California Coastal Conservancy, a state government agency.
Because it was work, mostly what I remember are tedious meetings, brain numbing reports and reams of bureaucratic regulations seemingly impossible to overcome. Now retired, I was involved in the project’s early planning stages. Since then, newer staff continued this process until in the early part of 2016, the San Clemente Dam on the Carmel River was no longer.
Removing this dam was a huge undertaking, over twenty years in the making spanning different state and federal political regimes both conservative and liberal. Originally built in 1921 to store water, over the 94 years of its life, the dam held a reservoir that had silted in and no longer served its primary purpose. Like other dams, this one had destroyed habitat for numerous wildlife species, including the central coast steelhead trout, a threatened species. It also posed a risk to downstream landowners should the dam collapse during a flood event which was deemed more and more possible. All signs pointed to the need to remove this dam, but nobody could figure out how to do it, until they did.
The removal of the San Clemente Dam is a great environmental success story and reminds me of the fact that behind the façade of even the most hostile political regimes are good projects moving forward in the cubicles of public agencies and private nonprofits, often at a snail’s pace. They are finally completed because of inspired people who are willing to put in the long and often frustrating hours to not only plan and design the project, but to locate funding and see it through. It is largely due to these unheralded folks, not their political leaders, that the projects grind along until one day, fish return, birds nest, predators hunt, and people rejoice.
With a Perspective, I’m Carol Arnold.