Carmel River Floodplain Restoration and Environmental Enhancement Project
(Carmel River FREE)
In partnership with the County of Monterey, we are leading the landmark Carmel River Floodplain Restoration and Environmental Enhancement (Carmel River FREE) Project. Another example of Big Sur Land Trust's long-term commitment to conservation and land in service of community, Carmel River FREE will restore habitat and help significantly reduce flood risks for homes and businesses in the lower Carmel River watershed.
This project is one of the most extensive and important multi-benefit flood protection and riparian habitat restoration efforts on the Central Coast! Using a nature-based green infrastructure solution, it will reclaim the southern floodplain to direct water away from developed areas north of the river. It includes numerous partners and stakeholders, engineering, design and environmental review, permit approvals and, of course, dollars. The Monterey County Board of Supervisors certified the project's Final Environmental Impact Report in 2020 and in 2021 they approved the project and authorized County staff to move forward to finalize permits and obtain needed agreements and entitlements. In 2022, the Board approved an updated and revised Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the County, BSLT, CA State Department of Parks and Recreation (CSP), Monterey Peninsula Regional Park District (MPRPD), Monterey County Water Resources, and Monterey Peninsula Water Management District for the purpose of coordinating the project’s planning and construction activities.
Big Sur Land Trust’s 128-acre project site at the former Odello (East) Fields was donated to us by Clint Eastwood and Margaret Eastwood. While Big Sur Land Trust is the largest landowner at the Carmel River FREE site, portions of the project are also located on Palo Corona Regional Park and Carmel River State Beach. Habitat restoration on the project site will be guided by two restoration plans. A Tier 1 Restoration Management Plan will guide compensatory restoration (required by regulatory agencies to mitigate for impacts) on land owned by BSLT and CSP. A Tier 2 Habitat Management Plan will be implemented by BSLT and will guide initial revegetation and ongoing adaptive habitat management (non-compensatory) on BSLT and MPRPD property.
BSLT is continuing to work with the County to raise the necessary funds to construct Carmel River FREE. With all costs going up these days, we greatly appreciate the recent $2 million investment secured by California State Senator John Laird (D-Santa Cruz) through the state budget process for priorities in District 17.
In late August 2022, the County of Monterey and Big Sur Land Trust made the difficult, yet necessary, decision to postpone the beginning of Phase 1 construction of the Carmel River FREE project as it could jeopardize significant funding from FEMA. FEMA is conducting their required environmental assessment for Carmel River FREE in consideration of funding a Hazard Mitigation grant of $25.3 million for construction of the project. FEMA informed the County that starting any construction as planned for Phase 1 of the project (initial eastside floodplain grading and restoration) prior to the completion of their environmental assessment would jeopardize the ability of FEMA to award funds for Carmel River FREE.
Carmel River FREE is still planned to go to construction as soon as all necessary funding has been awarded. The FEMA environmental assessment is currently scheduled to be completed in the coming months, with possible funding awarded late winter 2022 or early spring 2023. The County and Big Sur Land Trust will continue to work closely with FEMA and the California Office of Emergency Services to complete this process.
Together, the County and Big Sur Land Trust are re-evaluating the possibility of commencing Phase 1 (initial eastside floodplain grading and restoration) if and – optimistically – when the FEMA funding is awarded. In the meantime, we are moving forward together on other project elements (restoration and habitat management planning, project agreements, final design of the causeway, etc.). Big Sur Land Trust has also begun propagating plant species such as black cottonwood, arroyo willow, creeping wildrye, and blue elderberry that will eventually be part of the floodplain restoration. At this time, approximately $18 million has been awarded for all stages of Carmel River FREE, the CEQA and NEPA environmental review is complete, and all permits have been obtained.
How you can contribute
Ongoing floodplain restoration and stewardship will require additional funding. Anticipating this critical need, in 2016 we set up a stewardship fund with the Community Foundation for Monterey County. For more information contact Kate Mitchell Mehle at 831.625.5523 ext.105.