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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Unreliable Water from Russian River

By Brenda Adelman
The Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) came to Guerneville again last month. In February they arrived with an army of staff to inform us of their plans to divert an extra 26,000 acre feet (AF) from Lake Sonoma for their water customers. In mid-March a few key staff came to warn us about diminished water supplies and lowered flows. It seemed like a contradiction, and I reported earlier that it was, but now there are several new twists.

At the March 18th meeting in Guerneville, attended by approximately 70 people, Pam Jeane, responsible for system operations, and Dave Manning, the Agency’s leading fish biologist, responded to questions for over two hours about deficiencies in the water system. It was an informative meeting, and staff seemed to answer everyone’s questions sincerely. Nevertheless, many questions remained. Since then, after meeting individually with several key staff, the many complexities of our current water supply situation appear even more muddled.

Estimates of how much water will be available to Water Agency contractors this coming year, including Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Cotati, Petaluma, Sonoma, Valley of the Moon, North Marin Water District, and Windsor, keep changing. First the Agency could sell 52,000 acre feet (AF). At the March contractor’s meeting, the amount went up to 54,500 AF.

The numbers looked “fishy” to us. Contractors have been bragging for years about conserving 15%. We learned recently that conservation savings are based on 2004 water use, a year when contractors consumed 66,193 AF. 15% of that amounts to almost 10,000 AF. If we deduct 10,000 AF from 66,000 AF (rounded numbers) we get 56,000 AF as the target number to meet 15%. Yet for three years between 2006 and 2008, the contractors averaged 65,352 AF per year.

In addition to river water the Agency also pumps about 6,000 AF a year from Laguna groundwater that is unregulated, since there are no limits on groundwater withdrawals. Even if we assume that the 15% applies only to river withdrawals, they are still missing their conservation target by about a third. It is further misleading that they only have to make the 15% target and stay there; they do not have to conserve a new 15% every year.

These numbers become important because the State Water Board very recently came out with a new order that significantly lowers flows (from now to September) throughout the river. In normal rain years, flows in the lower river have to meet a minimum of 125 cubic feet per second (cfs); under the new order they will go down to 85 cfs while Lake Mendocino is at 25,000 acre feet (AF) or more. (It is currently around 53,000 AF.) If Lake Mendocino goes BELOW 25,000 AF, then the flows as measured at Hacienda will have to go down to about 35 cfs. This would have a major impact on recreation and water quality!

Another part of the problem lies with vineyards, which use major amounts of water for frost protection this time of year to sustain their crops. The water draw down in creeks is so rapid, that the practice has caused death to unknown numbers of endangered coho both this year and last.

Lake Sonoma has more than enough water for all downstream needs; yet the problem is conveyance to the distribution system. Because of the endangered fish species and the recently released Biological Opinion dictating the means by which that water can be obtained and the amount of flow to be released, increased Lake Sonoma water supplies probably won’t be accessible for a very long time. The Agency is required by National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to maintain flows within a limited range to protect endangered fish in Dry Creek.

Several environmental groups are calling for the State Board to hold a hearing on the new Order just released. We feel it is much too rough and many of its directives need to be more clearly spelled out. For instance, in regards to CEQA compliance it says, “The proposed action will assure the maintenance of the environment, i.e., the instream environment of the Russian River.”
What is not acknowledged is that this order will cause both environmental benefits AND detriments. By lowering flows now, before what may be a long hot summer, it may cause greater harm to riparian vegetation. It is also likely to cause great proliferation of invasive species such as Ludwegia, which in turn would have further impacts.

Unknown impacts from unregulated toxins are also likely as the lower flows deny any mixing benefit to minimize their effects. We asked, “What harm will come to the fish and other aquatic life as a result of this scenario? We are referring to all aquatic life, not just identified at-risk populations. What will be the impacts to human health from swimming in this water with possible concentrated pollutants and how much more likely will it be for them to come in contact with pathogenic bacteria? Will these circumstances cause public beaches to be closed?”

Water quality monitoring is being proposed to address possible harm from lowered flows. We asked what happened to the monitoring done in 2004 and 2007 during low flow periods? Where is that information? How complete was it? Simply ordering monitoring doesn’t address potential impacts from lowering flows.

We further stated, “To assure that a healthy environment will be maintained, simply stating that impacts to beneficial uses from this Order will not occur, is just a convenient way to address the “emergency” through a piece of paper, rather than provide meaningful information about actual environmental reality. For this reason, it is essential that you open the review process and allow public input. This is now the fourth year of the last eight where emergency situations have arisen. When that occurs, what you have is not an emergency, but a MANAGEMENT PROBLEM!

Russian River Watershed Protection Committee works in the public interest on Sonoma County water and wastewater issues. All of our funding comes from our supporters on our mailing list. If you are interested in supporting our work, please send a donation via PayPal at or mail it to RRWPC, P.O. Box 501, Guerneville, CA 95446. You can email us at

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