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Old Baldy, Canada | photo by Cameron Schaus
Conservation Issues of the Ventana Chapter | monterey county

Carmel River

Lawsuit seeks reduction in diversions from Carmel River

Steelhead teetering on extinction
August 2009

Sierra Club and the Carmel River Steelhead Association (CRSA) have filed a lawsuit in federal court under the citizen enforcement provision of the Environmental Species Act (ESA). The lawsuit is seeking an immediate 35% reduction in diversions of water from the Carmel River in Monterey County by California-American Water Company. CalAm, a privately owned California corporation, produces water by diversions from the Carmel River (accounting for 85% of the diversions) and by pumping from the alluvium of the Carmel River. Additionally it pumps water from the aquifer below the Seaside Basin to service the Monterey Peninsula.

The suit contends that as a result of the over pumping, the Carmel River steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) could become extinct. Steelhead in the Carmel River were listed as a federally threatened species in 1997. They are anadromous fish that spawn and rear as juveniles in freshwater, but gain most of their growth in the ocean so fish passage through the Carmel River from Los Padres Dam is critical to their survival. Numbers have been in a steady decline since 2001 despite annual rescue efforts by CRSA volunteers to move fish upstream as the river dries. Factors for decline for Carmel River steelhead are habitat blockages, dewatering from urban water diversions, habitat degradation, and agricultural and urban development on floodplains and riparian areas.

Sierra Club attorney Larry Silver of the California Environmental Law Project has been working with Chapter members and CRSA for over a dozen years on this issue. In the early 90s which experienced severe drought conditions, the steelhead numbers dropped to a handful. Paralleling the declining steelhead population during this period was the rising urban demand for water. In 1995 the Club and CRSA filed a complaint with the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB). SWRCB ruled that CalAm’s Carmel Valley wells require a permit from the SWRCB to appropriate water, which Cal-Am to this date has not obtained. Accordingly, the SWRCB found that Cal-Am was diverting water unlawfully from the Carmel River.

The SWRCB also found that CalAm had rights to divert only 3,376 acre-feet annually. The SWRCB stated that: “Cal-Am is diverting about 10,730 acre-feet annually from the Carmel River or its underflow without a valid basis of right.” The SWRCB also found that CalAm’s diversions were “having an adverse effect on: the riparian corridor along the river below San Clemente Dam, wildlife which depend on the instream flows and riparian habitat, and steelhead which spawn in the river.” Accordingly, SWRCB ordered Cal-Am to immediately reduce its diversions from the river by 20%, to divert water as far downstream as practicable, and to take other remedial mitigation measures.

However, for the last fourteen years Cal-Am has continued to divert up to 11,285 acre-feet annually.

Commenting on the complaint, attorney Larry Silver said, “Many fish die, and a count done earlier this year found only 93 adult steelhead returned from the ocean to the river, a 75% decrease from previous years. This population could be gone and something needs to be done to promote the survival and recovery of the young steelhead.”

A U.S. District Court hearing is scheduled September 18 before Judge Jeremy Fogel in San Jose. Court documents and supporting declarations are posted on our website,

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