Carmel River courses with wildlife and resources

It’s winter in Carmel Valley, and water flow in the Carmel River is high and fast. With this year’s heavy rains, the drought-afflicted river should be recovering, and so should its endangered steelhead trout. But the situation isn’t that simple.

Currently, conservation of both of these local resources hangs in the balance, and soon Monterey County must make critical decisions regarding them. You might call it a ‘watershed moment’ in the river’s history.

Here at CHS, our debts to the Carmel River are countless. Not only is the river responsible for creating our beloved Carmel Valley, it is the major source of water for the entire Peninsula.

Monterey Peninsula Regional Park District director John Dalessio goes as far as calling it “the lifeblood for pretty much everything—plant, animal and human—that lives in the Valley.” But because the river is so important, the policies and politics surrounding it can become quite controversial.

More often heard than seen, a wrentit skulks through chaparral scrub in the marshland surrounding the Carmel River lagoon.

More often heard than seen, a wrentit skulks through chaparral scrub in the marshland surrounding the Carmel River lagoon.

Just look at California American Water, a company that has been actively overdrafting water from the river for decades. As CHS science teacher Kevin Buran explains, CalAm’s actions have exacerbated an already-worsening water crisis, especially because a lot of that water is actually being pumped over to Seaside.

And then there’s all the squabbling over flood-

prone Mission Fields, a neighborhood built on what was once the floodplain of the Carmel River. Because of manipulation of the river’s naturally fluctuating course, the neighborhood will periodically flood, as CHS science teacher Jason Maas-Baldwin points out.

“The river used to migrate a lot more,” Maas-Baldwin says. “A lot of upstream alteration…is what resulted in the disastrous floods in Mission Fields, which [are actually] supposed to happen because it’s a floodplain.”

To further complicate matters, endangered steelhead trout live in the lagoon at the river’s mouth.

Steelhead, a type of salmon, spend most of their lives in the ocean, but must reproduce in fresh water. After hatching upstream, juvenile steelhead swim to the lagoon, where they can safely mature before entering the sea.

On a river with two dams like the Carmel, this presented a major obstacle. The lower of those dams, the San Clemente, was successfully removed in November, but the question still remains: Will the steelhead rebound?

So far, the results aren’t promising.

“During December 2015, flow conditions in the lower Carmel River were inadequate for migration of all steelhead life stages,” according to the Jan. 27 Carmel Fishery Report of the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District. All major tributaries remain dry, and the full effects of this winter’s El Niño on Carmel’s steelhead remain to be seen.

As for other wildlife in the Carmel River, such as the endemic and threatened California red-legged frog, the future is also uncertain.

According to Rachel Anderson, a graduate student who studies amphibian conservation at the University of California, Davis, red-legged frogs are declining because of habitat loss, introduced predators and disease, but they have the potential to do well in the Carmel Watershed.

“A smaller river like the Carmel [is] ideal for….red-legged frogs, [which] prefer slower side channels [and] pools that retain water all season,” Anderson says.

Of course, the greater river ecosystem is filled with a wonderful diversity of other species as well, from spotted owls to mountain lions, and its natural beauty has been preserved through the efforts of organizations like the MPRPD.

A red-shouldered hawk perches in willows above the Carmel River, lush in summer foliage.

A red-shouldered hawk perches in willows above the Carmel River, lush in summer foliage.

“By creating Garland Ranch Regional Park and several other smaller land holdings further up the Valley, we have provided thousands of protected acres,” Dalessio says of the park district. “[And] while much of this land is open to the public, it is restricted to well-defined trails…leaving most of the land to nature.”

As the West dries up, as experts predict it will, pressure for the Carmel River’s precious water will only increase. How we deal with the strain—by minimizing how much water we take from the river, restoring its riparian ecosystems and monitoring its threatened species—is up to us.

Maas-Baldwin reminds locals, “So much of it is connected to our water resources solution.” While these decisions are never easy, the very future of our community may hinge on them.”

-Michael Montgomery