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State's largest dam removal project starting
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SANTA CRUZ (AP) — A 92-year-old dam that's been in danger of collapse for decades is slated for demolition this summer, the largest dam to come down in California history.

The $83 million, 28-month tear down is prompting hopes that the 36-mile waterway once listed among "America's Top Ten Most Endangered Rivers" might someday be restored to the quiet, clear ribbon that flowed from forested mountains to the Monterey Bay.

In a rare case of harmony, state and local regulators, lawmakers, environmental advocates and private utility owners scheduled a joint groundbreaking ceremony for Friday morning in Carmel. They say it will be the biggest dam removed in California history.

"This resolves a problem we've been dealing with since 1980," said Robert MacLean, president of dam-owner California American Water. "It's a very innovative solution that restores the river and eliminates a seismic hazard."

Brian Stranko, who directs California's office of The Nature Conservancy, said they're supporting the project in hopes it will be a national model.

"We're going to confront this problem a lot in coming decades as a lot of dams are ending their useful life and creating safety issues," he said.

The first step of the demo project involves rerouting half a mile of the Carmel River so that the 2.5 million cubic yards of sediment currently piled behind the dam — about 125,000 truckloads totaling the mass of the Great Pyramid — doesn't flow downstream and wipe out steelhead trout breeding grounds and endangered California red-legged frogs in the river. Then, piece by piece, crews from Watsonville-based Granite Construction will begin taking apart the 106-foot reinforced curved concrete San Clemente Dam bolted into the bedrock.

"This dam has long outlasted its utility, and it's time for it to go," said Steve Rothert, director of the California office of American Rivers.

The Carmel River was described in 1945 by John Steinbeck in "Cannery Row" as "a lovely little river. It isn't very long, but in its course it has everything a river should have."

Over the years, a destructive combination of pollution, overuse, forest fires and sedimentation has caved in the banks and congested the waterway, which dries to a trickle in summer months and is rarely deeper than waist-high, even in wet winters.

"The irony is that people think they're living in the most beautiful place in the world, where they think they can just build and build, but they have no idea where their water comes from, and they're blind to their impact on this finite resource, the Carmel River," said author and journalist Ray A. March, whose 2012 book "River in Ruin: The Story of the Carmel River" documents the damage.

While removing the dam is not going to resolve all the problems, planners say it will restore the river's natural sediment flow, helping replenish sand on Carmel Beach and reducing the risk of mud swamping about 1,500 homes and buildings downstream.

Providing enough water to CalAm's 40,000 customers in the Monterey area will require additional measures, including a desalination plant and additional aquifer storage.

Both the dam demolition and the desalination project date back to the early 90s, when state officials ordered the water company to reduce the amount it was pumping out of the Carmel River. Decades of legal battles and environmental reviews ensued. CalAm is now mandated to reduce its use of river water by the end of 2016. The desalination plant, which will convert ocean water into drinking water, is expected to cost more than $250 million and would remove salt from 10 million gallons of water a day by processing brackish water from 200-foot-deep beach wells near the town of Marina.

In addition, the company plans to add more storage wells that can be filled with Carmel River water in the winter when rains arrive.

The water company's customers will pay the bulk of the $49 million project, and the firm is donating the 928-acre dam property, which adjoins two regional parks, to the federal Bureau of Land Management. That will create a combined 5,400 acres of open space. State funds will cover another $25 million, with federal, nonprofit and legal funds handling the rest.