After years of work, the permits are finally in place for removal of the sediment-filled San Clemente Dam on the Carmel River.

On June 21, federal, state and local officials celebrated the start of the largest dam removal in California history, calling it a crucial environmental restoration project that could serve as a precedent for other dams in the state and the nation.

CSUMB students Sheldon Leiker and August DelforgeThe project, due to start in August, includes removing the 106-foot-high dam located 15 miles above Carmel. It has been out of use for years, with tons of sediment accumulating behind the aging structure, and was deemed seismically unsafe in the 1990s.

Every big dam removal project poses a large-scale environmental experiment, according to CSU Monterey Bay Professor Doug Smith. This dam removal is especially worthy of study because it is a new technique designed to keep all the trapped sediment in place, he said.

And that’s where CSUMB students come in.

Graduate student Sheldon Leiker and undergraduate August Delforge (an intern from the university’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Center) are leading the charge to quantify unintended environmental consequences, as a way to guide future dam removal projects.

Leiker, who will enter her second year in the Applied Marine and Watershed Science master’s program, works in Dr. Smith’s watershed geology lab. She and her field team of Delforge and Elizabeth Geisler, another grad student, are conducting a study on sediment transport in the Carmel River. California American Water is providing the funding to support the students.

The team is collaborating with NOAA and the U.S. Geological Survey to set up sites from just above the dam to the Carmel lagoon for monitoring.

“Basically, we are trying to establish a baseline of the river's current sediment system to be compared to studies after the dam is removed. That way, we can track changes in the system that result from the dam removal,” she said.

“Our field work consists of conducting topographic surveys and determining particle size distribution of the river bed at several study sites along the river,” she explained.

Leiker earned her undergraduate degree in avian biology at the University of Georgia, and then spent some time in Costa Rica working as a teaching assistant on tropical ecology study-abroad programs and as a naturalist for a biological research station within Cabo Blanco Absolute Reserve.

“Working in Costa Rica, I realized I wanted to shift my career toward environmental and physical sciences rather than biology.

“At a California State University course in Costa Rica, I met some of the CSUMB faculty, learned of the program and decided to apply. The applied marine and watershed science master’s program appealed to me because of the hands-on approach the courses take,” she said.

“It provides students with excellent academics and real world experience in our field, which is invaluable to students.”

Photo: Sheldon Leiker (left) and August Delforge. Photo courtesy of Dr. Doug Smith