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Sunday, January 9, 2011

Russian River Estuary Management Project

January Meeting An Opportunity 
to Comment on Estuary Changes
By Ann DuBay

On Tuesday, January 18, at 6 p.m., Jenner residents and others interested in the Russian River estuary (where the river flows into the ocean) will have an opportunity to comment on a plan that could change the way the estuary is managed during the summer (between May 15 and October 15).

On the 18th, the Sonoma County Water Agency’s Board of Director’s will hold a public hearing on the Russian River Estuary Management Project (estuary project), which is designed to comply with the requirements of the National Marine Fisheries Service’s (NMFS) Russian River Biological Opinion. The purpose of the project is to enhance summer rearing habitat for young steelhead while managing estuary water levels to minimize the risk of flooding to low-lying properties. There are two major components of the estuary project:

1. When the sandbar naturally closes the mouth of the river, the Water Agency will open it by creating a long, wide, shallow outlet channel. The intent of the outlet channel is to create a freshwater lagoon by allowing river water to flow out while preventing salt water from entering the estuary. It’s important for people to understand that the outlet channel plan relies on the sandbar closing naturally. It’s also important to understand that the outlet channel won’t be “constructed” but formed by heavy equipment operators sculpting the sandbar according to a design approved by NMFS and the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG).

2. The second component of the project includes intensive monitoring and studies in the estuary. The studies will provide ongoing information on water quality (including temperature and other measurements critical to fish health), steelhead and salmon prey (primarily the tiny spineless creatures known as invertebrates) and other species (including seals and Dungeness crab). These studies will help the Water Agency, NMFS and the California Department of Fish and Game to determine whether the freshwater lagoon is working as intended and to adapt the plan if necessary.

The estuary project was developed as a partial response to plummeting steelhead and coho populations. These fish, once abundant throughout the West Coast, are disappearing from our waters. In the Biological Opinion, NMFS notes the importance of freshwater lagoons in providing habitat for young steelhead (which live in freshwater for one to two years before heading out to the ocean). Estuary adaptive management is one major component of the 15-year blueprint for ensuring that the Water Agency’s and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers activities don’t harm steelhead, coho or Chinook populations. (The other major components of the biological opinion are habitat enhancement in Dry Creek and reducing minimum flows in the river and Dry Creek during the summer.)

The Water Agency began opening the sandbar when it closes (also known as “breaching”) in the mid-1990s following a county government reorganization. Prior to this, Sonoma County Public Works or residents opened the sandbar. Historically, the Water Agency has breached the sandbar by cutting a simple v-ditch at the narrowest point in the sandbar. Gravity and river flows do the rest – scouring the sandbar and lowering estuary water levels quickly. The estuary project would continue this practice from mid-October to mid-May, but would require the Water Agency to implement the outlet channel from late spring through early autumn (when young steelhead use the estuary as a nursery).

What the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) found
As the lead agency under California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the Water Agency is responsible for analyzing the environmental impacts of the estuary project. A consulting group, Environmental Science Associates (ESA), conducted the analysis for the agency and found that the proposed project would benefit young steelhead and coho by providing additional habitat. The EIR also found that the project may result in potentially significant environmental effects, including:

- Shoreline areas that are currently inundated when the estuary closes could be inundated for longer time periods;
- The levels of nutrients and pathogens in the water could increase;
- Low-lying wells could experience longer periods of saline groundwater conditions;
- The location where harbor seals and other pinnipeds haulout in the river would be inundated for longer time periods;
- The elimination of the tidal channel created by traditional breaching techniques would impact surfing conditions and the rise in estuary levels would inundate some recreational beaches.

The EIR analyzed several alternatives to the estuary project, some which were suggested during the scoping period. Alternatives ranged from “no project” to a reduced project to habitat enhancement to a temporary standpipe. The project, impacts and alternatives are analyzed in detail in the draft EIR, which is available online (, at the Water Agency administrative office and at the Guerneville, Occidental and Sonoma County Central libraries.

Comments will be taken at the January 18 public hearing, 6-9 p.m., at the Jenner Community Center (10398 Highway 1). 

Written comments (please include your name, address and phone number) can be submitted to the Sonoma County Water Agency, attention Jessica Martini Lamb, 404 Aviation Blvd, Santa Rosa, CA 95403 or by emailing

We encourage anyone who is interested in this project to read the draft EIR and submit comments before the comment period closes at 5 p.m. on February 14, 2011.

Ann DuBay is a public information officer for the Sonoma County Water Agency.

The Biological Opinion News
is now available in PDF and on the web

While the title may not be catchy, it reflects the sole purpose of this quarterly e-publication: To inform you and other stakeholders on progress being made on the Russian River Biological Opinion.

The Sonoma County Water Agency and the US Army Corps of Engineers are now in the third year of implementing this 15-year federal plan for improving water supply and flood control operations in order to help restore endangered coho and threatened steelhead. Until now, much of the work has been internal, with a focus on planning, studying and monitoring. This year, many of the projects required in the Biological Opinion transition into the implementation phase.

The Biological Opinion News provides brief updates on these studies and projects, with links to additional information. This first issue, which was formatted and conceived by recent Sonoma State University graduate and Water Agency intern Sara Lewis, is a pdf document, but future issues will be released in an email format that will be easier to access. 

The Biological Opinion News is also available at

For more information and.or to get on the e-mai list for future issues, please contact Ann DuBay at
707-524-8378 or 707-322-8185

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