For nine decades, the 10-story-high concrete dam with its rusted pipes, railings and valves has stood in the wooded canyons between the Big Sur hills and the picturesque town of Carmel, blocking the natural flows of the Carmel River.
When San Clemente Dam was built in 1921, the curved arch structure was a key source of water for growing Monterey Peninsula towns. But now it's obsolete and at risk of collapsing in an earthquake. And its reservoir is so silted up with sand and gravel that it hasn't been used to supply water since 2002.
In a project that will be watched by engineers and biologists across the nation, construction crews today will begin a three-year, $84 million project to teardown the hulking landmark -- California's largest dam-removal project ever. The work will open up 25 miles of upstream tributaries and creeks so endangered steelhead trout can return to their historical spawning grounds.
"It's going to be beautiful," said Rob MacLean, standing on the dam's crest this week. "You won't even notice it was ever here."
MacLean is president of California American Water, the San Diego-based company that owns the dam.
When state inspectors declared in 1991 that the 106-foot-tall dam was at risk of failure in an earthquake -- which could wipe out hundreds of homes downstream -- the company had two choices: shore it up for $49 million, or tear it down for $84 million.
At first, the water company leaned toward buttressing the dam because it was the cheaper alternative. But a long-running legal battle loomed. The National Marine Fisheries Service said it was not likely to issue permits for the repair work because the dam blocked the migration of steelhead trout, a silvery fish protected by the federal Endangered Species Act.
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