Big Sur Land Trust—Carmel River Floodplain Restoration and Environmental Enhancement Project (Carmel FREE)
The Big Sur Land Trust in partnership with the County of Monterey is leading implementation of the Carmel River Floodplain Restoration and Environmental Enhancement (Carmel FREE) project that will restore habitat and reduce flood risks in the lower Carmel River watershed. The project will use nature-based approaches to reduce flood risks to nearby properties by restoring the natural river corridor and habitats. Old levees in need of maintenance along the River will be removed to allow restoration of the natural floodplain, which will improve water quality and habitats, and recharge groundwater. A new causeway bridge for Highway 1 will be built to restore hydrological connectivity and facilitate restoration of wetlands on the project site that are adjacent to the Carmel Lagoon. Additionally, new trails will be constructed throughout the project site to create recreational amenities for residents. These activities are anticipated to restore approximately 100 acres of wetlands and other habitats delivering environmental benefits and also enhancing flood resilience from sea-level rise and more frequent storms for businesses and residents in the Carmel Valley. This project demonstrates how public-private partnerships with land trusts can be used to facilitate land acquisitions and support ecosystem-based restoration projects.
The Carmel River FREE project is being implemented in the lower Carmel River watershed and Carmel River Lagoon where the river dumps into the Carmel Bay in Monterey County, California just south of the City of Carmel and Carmel River State Beach. The project site was formerly a functioning floodplain that was disconnected from the river when levees were built in the 1930s to facilitate agricultural uses. The site also intersects with Highway 1, where a bridge crosses the Carmel River connecting the cities of Monterey and Carmel with Big Sur. The project will restore hydrological connectivity between the lower part of the Carmel River floodplain and coastal and estuarine waters of the Carmel Lagoon by removing the levees that have degraded the former wetland and riparian habitats along the river.
An important aspect of the project is enhancing flood resilience for homes and businesses neighboring the Carmel River. This region along the Central Coast of California experienced significant flood losses during two El Niño storms in 1995 and 1998. The 1995 storm destroyed the Highway 1 bridge over the Carmel River, flooded development on both sides of the highway, and cut off access to Carmel and Big Sur for several months. Despite improvements to the bridge after the 1995 storm, the region flooded again in 1997 causing estimated losses of $38 million countywide. It is anticipated that climate change will increase flood risks in this region as a result of sea-level rise and more frequent and intense storms.
Managed Retreat Examples
CLT Projects and Activities
The Big Sur Land Trust, in partnership with the County of Monterey, is implementing the Carmel River FREE project to facilitate nature-based approaches for enhancing flood resilience in the Carmel River Watershed. The project will restore habitat and reduce flood risks in the lower Carmel River watershed and the Carmel River Lagoon where the river empties into the Carmel Bay. One hundred acres of habitat will be restored including wetlands, grasslands, and a protected 23-acre agricultural preserve. The project will involve floodplain grading, removal of levees, and construction of a new causeway bridge on Highway 1 to restore hydrological connectivity between the project site and the Carmel Lagoon. Natural river corridors and habitats will be restored to enhance flood resilience for neighboring homes and businesses along the Carmel River. Old levees in need of maintenance along the river will also be removed to facilitate restoration, which will improve water quality, habitats, and groundwater recharge. Restoration efforts will be conducted on 128 acres donated to the land trust from The Clint and Margaret Eastwood family as well as publicly owned, adjacent sites located on the Palo Corona Regional Park and the Carmel River State Beach.
The project is anticipated to deliver a range of social, environmental, and flood-risk-reduction benefits by restoring habitats and enhancing community resilience to future sea-level rise and more frequent storms. Using the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) benefit-cost analysis, the land trust estimates that the project will bring $3 in benefits for every $1 spent to implement the project, including reduced flood insurance premiums for property owners at the mouth of the Carmel River where many properties are in the 100-year floodplain. The project will increase the floodplain buffer for development to protect against future sea-level rise and more intense storms. Additionally, improvements to Highway 1 will also reduce future flood risks by allowing for increased streamflow to pass under the bridge.1 The project will also deliver important habitat improvements; native vegetation will be planted and the project will improve water flow into the lagoon that will improve habitat for fish, including endangered steelhead trout. Additionally, new trails will be constructed throughout the project site to create recreational amenities for residents. It is estimated that the improvements will save the County $14 million in flood control costs, by eliminating the need for the County to make extensive improvements to the levee system currently protecting residents from flooding.
Supporting State and Local Policies
A large coalition of public-private partners is helping to implement the project. The land trust is partnering with a range of state and local entities and funders, including: Monterey County, Monterey Peninsula Regional Park District, California State Parks, California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), the California State Coastal Conservancy, the California Wildlife Conservation Board, California Department of Water Resources, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Most significantly, local agencies are coordinating restoration activities across public and private lands that make up the project site. Restoration efforts will be conducted on a 128-acre site donated to the Big Sur Land Trust by Clint and Margaret Eastwood and on adjacent sites on the Palo Corona Regional Park and the Carmel River State Beach.
It is anticipated that the project will cost approximately $30 million to implement, and the Land Trust is also raising $2 million to cover 20 years of maintenance and monitoring costs of $100,000 per year. State and local agencies have contributed significant funding to support implementation of the project. Funds have been contributed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the California State Coastal Conservancy, the California Wildlife Conservation Board, the California Department of Water Resources, and Caltrans. The project was also made possible through private sector partnerships and donations. First, the 128-acre site where the bulk of restoration activities will occur was donated by Clint and Margaret Eastwood. The Land Trust is also partnering with the Community Foundation for Monterey County (a local philanthropy that helps communities by prioritizing and allocating grant funding for different projects) to support fundraising for a $2 million stewardship fund to support long-term maintenance of the project.
Considerations and Lessons Learned
This project demonstrates how land trusts can be important partners in facilitating land acquisitions and ecosystem restoration projects that can deliver important flood resilience benefits for communities. The Big Sur Land Trust has been a leading project proponent of the Carmel FREE project and is facilitating restoration across lands donated to the land trust as well as adjacent publicly owned sites. The land trust has also helped leverage public and private funding sources to support the project including bringing in grant funding from federal, state, and local agencies as well as private foundations. The land trust is also evaluating funding needs over a long-term time horizon to improve site management by raising $2 million to cover 20 years of maintenance and monitoring costs. Public-private partnerships should consider similar opportunities to dedicate project funding upfront for land management costs, in addition to those for land acquisition.
Publication Date: January 2020
- Land management and conservation
- Best practice
- Case study
1. Draft EIS at 363-364.