Carmel River FREE aims to reconnect river to floodplains – Monterey Herald
CARMEL — At first glance, it’s just a field. But for the Big Sur Land Trust, the 128-acre site of Palo Corona Regional Park represents more than 20 years of effort to restore history.
Located east of Highway 1 and south of the Carmel River, the site was once known as the Odello Fields (East), where the Odello family turned the floodplain into a farm field to grow artichokes.
It was donated to the Big Sur Land Trust by Clint Eastwood and Margaret Eastwood and will serve as the construction site for the Carmel River Floodplain Restoration and Environmental Enhancement (Carmel River FREE) project.
The Big Sur Land Trust is leading the project, in partnership with Monterey County.
“This project has taken decades to prepare,” explained Rachel Saunders, director of conservation for the Big Sur Land Trust.
The $45 million Carmel River FREE project aims to restore habitat and reduce flood risk to homes and businesses in the lower Carmel River watershed.
According to Saunders, the idea for the project originated in the late 1990s after a series of storms caused massive flooding at the mouth of the valley, including the Great Winter Storm of 1995 which caused the rise of waters of the Carmel River and knocked down the Highway 1 bridge to the sea.
“At the time, this project was designed as a major green infrastructure project with multiple benefits. Nature is basically helping us solve some of the problems that, in a way, we have created by using the land here,” she explained. “This will reduce the impacts of flooding by reconnecting the river with its historic southern floodplain.”
Saunders described the current site as a “giant bathtub”. She explained that when Odello’s former property was converted to farmland, dykes were built to prevent the fields from flooding and to protect the crops. Highway 1 also acts as a levee and further constrains the river by forcing rushing water into a narrower channel and causing flooding.
“We’ve created a situation through our land use decisions that has forced the river into a channel where it doesn’t want to be,” Saunders said.
The Big Sur Land Trust project plans to create a series of new ‘carrier’ channels that allow water to travel through other routes to reach the Carmel Lagoon and the ocean. Saunders explained that instead of removing the levee, the project will cut new notches in the levee to allow water to stay in the channel but release it from developed areas.
To prevent floodwaters from disrupting Highway 1, the project will dig under the highway and create a new opening for floodwaters to drain. Saunders explained that a detour road will be installed once construction begins on Highway 1 to avoid traffic delays.
And to pay homage to the agricultural history of the land, the Big Sur Land Trust plans to create an agricultural reserve – with the land produced by the project – which is raised to protect it from flooding.
Saunders explained that in addition to reducing flood risk and restoring natural habitats for wildlife, the project will benefit the community in multiple ways, including public recreation and education.
“It will be an amazing outdoor classroom, a very visible project,” she said. “(It provides) the opportunity to lift stories of indigenous people, as well as the farming family and their history on this land.”
About 20 members of the public gathered early Friday morning for a 3-mile round-trip guided hike to the project site. Saunders led the way, stopping periodically to provide information about the project and the history of the river.
Saunders said that although the Big Sur Land Trust has offered guided hikes at the project site for a few years, the organization has stepped up efforts more recently as it plans to begin construction next year.
The visit provides the Big Sur Land Trust with an opportunity to educate the community about the project, answer any questions or concerns, and possibly raise funds.
Saunders said the organization originally expected to be able to show the public more than just an empty field as the first phase of construction was due to begin this month.
Monterey County and the Big Sur Land Trust were forced to postpone construction after learning it could jeopardize a $25.3 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Saunders explained that FEMA is currently conducting a required environmental assessment of the project and that any construction before the grant is complete would jeopardize the agency’s ability to award funds for the project.
About $18 million has been awarded to Carmel River FREE, and Saunders said the county and the Big Sur Land Trust hope to begin construction on Phase 1 of the project next year.
“We’re working hard to be able to start construction in late spring, early summer and have most of it done in 2023 for phase 1 and then start phase 2,” she said. “There is still a lot to do, … so maybe by 2026 the construction will be finished.”
More information about the project can be found at https://bigsurlandtrust.org/carmel-river-free/.