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River in Ruin

The Story of the Carmel River

Ray A. March

Publication Year: 2012

The thin ribbon of the Carmel River is just thirty-six miles long and no wider in most places than a child can throw a stone. It is the primary water supply for the ever-burgeoning presence of tourists, agriculture, and industry on California’s Monterey Peninsula. It is also one of the top ten endangered rivers in North America. The river’s story, which dramatically unfolds in this book, is an epic tale of exploitation, development, and often unwitting degradation reaching back to the first appearance of Europeans on the pristine peninsula.

River in Ruin is a precise weaving of water history—local and larger—and a natural, social, and environmental narrative of the Carmel River. Ray A. March traces the river’s misuse from 1879 and details how ever more successful promotions of Monterey demanded more and more water, leading to one dam after another. As a result the river was disastrously depleted, cluttered with concrete rubble, and inhospitable to the fish prized by visitors and residents alike.

March’s book is a cautionary tale about squandering precious water resources—about the ultimate cost of a ruined river and the slim but urgent hope of bringing it back to life.

Published by: University of Nebraska Press

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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pp. ix

List of Illustrations

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pp. x

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pp. xi-xv

In March 1999, the year I began my research for this book, the Carmel River made an ignominious debut before a national environmental audience when it appeared on “America’s Top Ten Most Endangered...

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pp. xvii-xxvi

On a summer evening between semesters at college, my friends and I gathered at Undertow Beach near the lagoon where the Carmel River enters Carmel Bay. The evening was nippy, a high fog hovered overhead...

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1. Spanish Era: Vizcaino to Father Serra

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pp. 1-7

It is mid-December 1602. Idled in a thick coastal fog, the three Spanish ships wait for favorable weather to continue their journey northward. The ships and their crews have been at sea more than eight months...

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2. Crocker Arrives: Tourist Trade Begins

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pp. 8-18

“Right here. This is where we’ll build the hotel,” ordered Charles Crocker, as he jammed his walking cane into the soil that would become the foundation ground for the Hotel Del Monte and the future...

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3. Not Enough Water: Building the Chinese Dam

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pp. 19-31

When Crocker first coveted its waters in 1880, the Carmel River was a simple, peaceful stream. It started high in the Santa Lucia Mountains as seepage that could be mistaken for leftover rainwater. It was so narrow...

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4. Water Demand Increases: A Second Dam Is Built

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pp. 32-47

As Crocker lay dying in his room at the Hotel Del Monte, construction of a second, larger reservoir was underway in the confines of Del Monte Forest. In August 1888, about one hundred Chinese workers...

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5. A Village of Artists: At Odds with the Pacific Improvement Company

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pp. 48-57

As Monterey, with its Hotel Del Monte, was progressively moving toward establishing itself as a vacation playground with appealing real estate for purchase, Carmel-by-the-Sea was going through its own version...

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6. Carmel’s Theater of Water: Enter Two Therapists from Oakland

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pp. 58-74

On Monday, August 8, 1921, Anne Nash and Dorothy Bassett, with all their belongings in tow, boarded a southbound train for Monterey. The two hospital occupational therapy instructors from Oakland...

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7. Sardines and Golf Courses: Yet Another Dam

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pp. 75-93

Who, other than possibly Charles Crocker, back in 1880, ever dreamed that by the middle of the twentieth century the Monterey Peninsula would be so utterly and completely dependent on a singular...

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8. The Era of Disrespect: An Environmental Awakening

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pp. 94-117

The golf courses’ reliance on water from the Carmel River only exacerbated what would be an ongoing problem of meeting the water requirements of a continually escalating population. Eventually it became apparent...

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9. Demise of the Steelhead: Anglers Debate the Fate of the Fish

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pp. 118-133

The placement of another dam on the Carmel River in 1949 posed a serious threat to the steelhead migrating from seawater to freshwater during their spawning periods. The status of this native...

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10. The Final Insult: Fire in the Forest

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pp. 134-152

On September 8, 1999, lightning struck California’s central coast and the inland Santa Lucia Mountains of Los Padres National Forest that form the watershed for the Carmel River. In shearing white, jagged electrical...

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pp. 153-163

The Kirk Complex Fire, as it became known, was not controlled until November 30, 1999. A total of 87,619 acres were burned, of which 48,136 acres—more than half the total area of the fire—were in the Carmel River...

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pp. 165-166

This is not an inflated metaphor: researching and writing this book has been like shooting the rapids of a wild river. One minute it’s calm, serene, floating dreamlike, the next moment anxious, the roar...

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Selected Bibliography

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pp. 167-174

This book, written over a period of many years, is based on both my personal observations as a career journalist and research in the history of water in California, most specifically the Monterey Peninsula. It would have been...

E-ISBN-13: 9780803240452
E-ISBN-10: 0803240457
Print-ISBN-13: 9780803238343

Page Count: 192
Illustrations: 14 illustrations, 1 map
Publication Year: 2012

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Water resources development -- California -- Carmel River Region -- History.
  • Water-supply -- California -- Carmel River Region -- History.
  • California, Northern -- Environmental conditions -- History.
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