Lower Flows on Russian River this Summer
By Brenda Adelman
Water-wise, this is going to be a long and difficult summer. Based on the State Water Board’s recent Order, from July 6th , to October 2nd, Sonoma County Water Agency is expected to lower Russian River flows from Healdsburg to the Estuary to 35-45 cubic feet per second (cfs). Normal summer flows at the Hacienda Bridge are usually three to five times that amount. The entire river will be a sliver of its normal self and those seeking refuge from the heat will probably not be able to canoe or swim in most areas.
What may be even worse is the potential for long-term damage to the lower river environment from both drastically lowered flows and the legalizing of “incidental” summer wastewater releases. The North Coast Regional Board is right now considering legalizing “incidental runoff” of irrigated wastewater. For the last thirty years, summer wastewater discharges of any kind had been illegal due to health and environmental concerns. Now there’s a state-wide push to reuse wastewater, mostly to enhance potable supplies. This would be fine if it were more highly treated.
Unfortunately, there are still many unregulated chemicals in the wastewater. What a double whammy! While these discharges won’t be authorized this year, it is likely they will be for next.
Our prior articles have documented Water Agency and State Board actions leading up to this flow situation. The lower Russian River will be little more than a puddle, except perhaps at Johnson's Beach where a dam will be installed. Numerous officials have reminded us that before the dams, there was almost no flow in the summer. We reminded them that there were also no vineyards and most agriculture was dry-farmed. Sonoma County cities were miniscule compared to what they are now, and some, such as Windsor, did not even exist. To say we can go back to where we were, is a false argument and impossible to accomplish.
There are numerous agencies calling the shots in this decision, and it appears none of them have prioritized the needs of our downstream community. There are too many straws in the stream and everyone is posturing to protect their own interests. We have a new supervisor who is trying to work on our behalf, but the problem is extremely complex and very long standing, and will require a lot more than community meetings to resolve. We wish him well.
We have sat in on hundreds of meetings on this issue, and rather than working together, everyone is looking at what others are doing wrong. The Cities blame the Water Agency and visa versa. Trust levels are pretty low all the way around, and often with good cause. We have talked to many of the players publicly and privately and absolutely everyone thinks that they are doing their share and others aren’t. But guess who’s losing most of their water? Only recently have we been able to get the issue of the dire consequences to the lower river included as part of the conversation.
This problem has been evolving over a very long time and is partly the result of archaic water law. Even if I could, I would not get into this now, but allocations are based on first come, first in right and the newer guys end up steeling water because the State has held up permit application approvals for over fifteen years in some cases.
The Potter Valley Project and Eel River diversions have been the subject of controversy for umpteen years. Recently a new ruling appears to have taken back more than half of the prior diversion to the Russian River (at least during dry years) and that’s partly why we are running so short now.
The Biological Opinion (BO), while ostensibly intended to save the endangered and threatened Coho, Chinook, and Steelhead, is actually calling for much lower flows on a permanent basis. We believe that the real reason for the current low flow regime is an experiment to see what will happen if flows are managed at extremely low levels so the Estuary can remain closed all summer to provide habitat for juvenile fish, which may have a negative impact on the harbor seals, another protected species.
The BO, along with draconian economic problems, and an ostensible lack of cooperation of Dry Creek property owners, is preventing the development of a pipeline to get water from Lake Sonoma, currently over 90% full, down to the Russian River. The National Marine Fisheries Services in the BO, called for six miles of habitat improvements before serious consideration of the pipeline. The goal would be to slow flows down to protect juvenile fish and still allow more water to flow. Urban contractors are worried that this plan will take ten years and may not solve the problem, and in the meantime, there will be no alternative water supply accessible. Oh, what a mess!
Before this year, the Water Agency asked for emergency orders from the State Board in 2002, 2004, and 2007, when they asked for a “dry” designation, bringing flows down to 85 cfs. Water availability in Lake Mendocino is currently only slightly lower now than it was at this time last year, which was considered a “normal” year. (There are complex formulas for determining these designations, but there are so many variables, we believe that much more could have been done to prevent our current situation.)
Since then, there has been very little progress in assuring equitable future flows that consider the environmental, recreational, and economic needs of lower river communities. Current requirements provide extensive water quality monitoring. The State’s “Provisional Order” can be rescinded if weekly meetings of the Regional Water Quality Control Board, State Fish and Game, National Marine Fisheries Service, and Water Agency determine it to be necessary, but no one knows under what circumstances that might come about.
Monitor Impact with Photos
We don’t trust this situation. Since everything that happens this summer can be the precursor to making low flows permanent, as determined in the Biological Opinion, we have decided to conduct a photo project of the area from Forestville to Monte Rio. Our goal is to document current and evolving river conditions. We are particularly worried about the spread of invasive plants, which have been proliferating in many locations in the lower river.
We are calling on photographers to select one to three locations where they will photograph conditions (preferably on weekends so we can see the impact on recreation as well) from the same location every week until October. If you want to help, please contact me as noted below.
We are also looking for people to photograph turf irrigation in the Cities that use Russian River water. The State Board initially banned this use, and then backed off and came up with a voluntary formula for limiting water application. Photographers would need to get out very early in the morning to business parks and other public facilities to photograph runoff, over-watering, etc. and the equipment being used to water.
If you would like to take part please respond by email and we can provide more information.
Russian River Watershed Protection Committee