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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Russian River Estuary EIR - Biological Opinions

Below are two OPINIONS on the Environmental Impact Report (EIR)and Biological Opinion (BO) on closing the Russian River Estuary at Jenner to restore fish habitat. Both are intelligent and considered, scientific and comprehensive. Please read BOTH to form and EDUCATED perspective on this subject. Our water use and fish habitat are very much wrapped up in this action designed to restore the Russian River to a more habitat-friendly environment for fish...and hopefully humans as well.

Estuary Project Final EIR Released! 
By Brenda Adelman
The Estuary Project Final Environmental Impact Report (EIR) was released on July 28, 2011. This is the project that plans to close the mouth of the river every summer to supposedly provide Steelhead habitat for the threatened fish. While it is incredibly important to do everything we can to save the fish, those of us who have studied the proposal believe this project will cause more harm than good.

Fishery agencies should focus on keeping adequate flows in the tributaries in the winter spawning season; they should focus on improving temperature conditions in the entire watershed year round; they should find ways to eliminate toxics (especially copper discharged in the treated sewage) and preventing the accumulation of nutrients as evidenced by pervasive and excessive algae blooms. They should work on stopping illegal water diversions and support programs to foster cooler water temperatures with the restoration of riparian habitat. All of these are critical watershed problems that negatively impact the fish.

Furthermore, for the last three years, Sonoma County Water Agency has attempted and failed to make this project work. Ocean forces determine when the mouth will close for the first time, which is the trigger for outlet channels to be constructed, and usually there are few closures until mid or late September. The hope that the mouth will close early on in the summer season has not materialized.

Other problems with this project (As of the time of writing this article, we have not seen the final document because it was released so close to the paper’s deadline; we don’t know and can’t comment on how they have responded to our concerns.):

- The project impacts are separated into two EIRs and the studies for the changes to Decision 1610 (low flow) are very relevant to this project but are not being considered as part of this process;

- The project relies on lowering river flows for its implementation, but does not adequately address resulting water quality impacts past Duncans Mills, even though the water will back up as far as Vacation Beach;

- The closing will back up water in Monte Rio area to cover beaches, increase stagnant water and possibly create health and safety issues on lower river beaches;

- The project calls for closing the mouth most of the summer, but allows for breaching when a very few buildings are threatened with flood; the impact on recreation, water quality issues, and other concerns when this happens, has not been adequately addressed;

- There are no goalpost measures to determine whether the project has succeeded in saving fish;
There is no trial period after which the project can be abandoned if it does not work and/or causes harm;

- The project will heavily impact recreational use of the State Parks beach at the mouth of the Russian River, one of the most popular areas on the Sonoma County Coast,

- The project will affect migratory birds and seal haul out area and may cause the abandonment of the Jenner haul out area by harbor seals, who are easily disturbed.

These are some of the reasons why most Russian River stakeholders and Russian River Watershed Protection Committee oppose approval of this project at this time.

The Board of Directors of the Sonoma County Water Agency (Supervisors) will certify this Final EIR and select the project at their meeting on August 16, 2011, at 10 AM at the Board of Supervisors’ Chambers at 575 Administration Dr. in Santa Rosa. We hope many of you will attend.

While Supervisors are not required to respond to comments, if you oppose this project or have concerns, you should let decision makers know. You can email your protests (or support) to Supervisor Efren Carrillo at or his staff, Susan Upchurch at

You can view Final EIR at local libraries in Guerneville and Occidental or obtain at their website at Call agency at 547-1900 for a CD of the document available for $5.

Finally, please support Brenda Adelman and RRCSD in our effort to address the problems with this project. We need your help and also financial contributions. (If a legal challenge is to occur, it must take place within 30 days of project selection. ) We welcome sign ups to our mailing and email lists. Please send contact information to if you want to stay informed.


By Dr. Bill Hearn
National Marine Fisheries Service
In two weeks, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors will deliberate on Sonoma County Water Agency’s (SCWA) Environmental Impact Report that concerns managing the Russian River estuary as a closed lagoon. SCWA’s EIR is part of a response to a biological opinion issued in 2008 by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).

That opinion found that flood control and water supply management of the Russian River during the past several decades has contributed substantively to the decline of steelhead and coho salmon. In a lengthy June 2010 article in this paper, I explained why restoration of the Russian River estuary to a more dynamic natural system is so important for the rebound of steelhead in this watershed (see 

Space limitations prevent my repeating that science-based explanation beyond a brief summary (see estuary fact box). However, it is worth emphasizing that with the construction of three major dams and reservoirs (Lake Pillsbury (1921); Lake Mendocino (1959); and Lake Sonoma (1981)), in normal water years summer flows in the Russian River have been about seven times higher than natural.

To accommodate these high flows, SCWA has been managing water levels to avoid property flooding in Jenner by breaching the sand barrier beach that periodically forms due to ocean wave action.

Until only recently, this beach management practice had been done without concern for impacts to natural processes that create highly important steelhead and salmon habitats. With issuance of the biological opinion, SCWA is now working to manage the water levels (i.e., breach the barrier beach) in a manner that helps avoid washing away beach sands at the river mouth. This needs to be done regardless of flow levels during summer.

Changing Our System
The biological opinion dictates that two separate actions are needed to create a lagoon ecosystem that would approximate summer conditions before the construction of the major reservoirs affecting the river. Summer flow needs to be better managed and the barrier beach management practices need to be modified. Early monitoring by SCWA indicates that management of the estuary as a closed lagoon can be achieved if approached using this two-tiered method.

Some have expressed concerns regarding these efforts to substantially improve rearing habitat for steelhead and salmon and restore the Russian River’s estuarine ecosystem. Concerns generally fall into three areas: impacts to boating, water quality, and seal displacement at the river’s mouth. Some parties also feel that the river has been changed by numerous contemporary developments; so there is no sense in trying to restore natural ecosystem functions. Some also feel that NMFS is too focused on salmon and not concerned with other species.

The Federal Endangered Species Act specifically states, “The purposes of this Act are to provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend may be preserved …”

We cannot protect and restore endangered and threatened species, and numerous other species depleted by habitat degradation solely through artificial rearing and stocking practices.

Habitats must be restored if we are to reestablish healthy sport fisheries for steelhead and ensure the survival of endangered salmon species for the benefit of future generations.

NMFS also has responsibility to promote healthy populations of harbor seals, and thankfully the population is stable and healthy and is not threatened with extinction. The formation of a closed estuarine lagoon during most summers will create beach conditions similar to those that supported healthy harbor seal populations for hundreds of years.

Records of the Fort Ross Settlers (1830s) and a geologist’s report from 1913 document that the Russian River estuary formed a closed lagoon during summer months. Management of the estuary as a closed lagoon during most summer months will alter the beach’s contours, and thus seals will likely distribute themselves differently. Some may disperse away from the river’s mouth. However, continued patrolling by those who keep pedestrian traffic and dogs away from seals and new requirements for seal monitoring by SCWA will help ensure the viability of Sonoma County’s seal populations.

Impacts of Closing the Lagoon
Restoring the estuary to a closed lagoon in summer requires steadfast efforts to manage and conserve beach sands to promote a shallow outlet stream across the surface of the beach. This effort is not dependent on SCWA’s control of inflows; indeed, efforts to conserve beach sand during breaching practices must be done months before inflows are low enough for SCWA to control. Nevertheless, concerns about the restoration of natural estuarine lagoon processes often focus on the effects of lower flows on the river.

The inconvenient truth is that Sonoma County has enjoyed the benefits of a large transfer of water from the Eel River for nearly a century without regard for the impacts of this transfer of flow on the salmon and steelhead runs in the Russian River or the Eel River watershed. Nowhere else along the coast of California are rivers discharging highly elevated, artificial flows (over 100 cubic feet per second) of potable freshwater to the ocean during summer with resulting impacts to endangered and threatened species.

Efforts to manage the estuary as a closed lagoon will not destroy boating opportunities during the summer. The very elevated summer flows due to sustained dam releases have been great for kayaking, and no doubt, river boating experience increases with flow – up to a point. Yet summer boating in the Russian River can likely be preserved by identifying a flow that minimizes the need for boaters to drag their boats through shallow riffles.

Preliminary evaluations indicate that a flow in the range of 75 to 90 cfs at Hacienda Bridge creates such conditions, and that this is probably within the range of flows needed to support a closed lagoon in Jenner. Note that 75 to 90 cfs is still roughly three times higher than summer flows prior to construction of the major dams. Moreover, depths along many miles of the lower river are maintained almost entirely by the summer dams at Johnson and Vacation Beaches.

Concern that water quality will deteriorate if summer flows decline from about 190 cfs to 90 cfs is based on the reasonable assumption that pollutants are concentrated by lower flows. It also stems from the degraded water quality observed in 2009 when an extreme water shortage forced a 35 cfs minimum flow. Contaminants, nutrients, and pathogens are in the river. Urban waste treatment facilities do not discharge to the river between mid-May and October 1.

However, faulty septic systems as well as human and animal contact periodically cause high levels of pathogens under both normal (125 cfs minimum) and dry year (85 cfs minimum) summer flows. Flushing pollution to the ocean with highly elevated, artificial flows harms listed steelhead, is contrary to rational water management policy, and is no way to treat the ocean. Dilution is not the solution to pollution, especially in a climate where it doesn’t rain for five months of the year. Pollution from faulty septic systems and other sources must be stopped at their source.

Recovering wild steelhead and salmon will require the restoration and protection of extensive amounts of stream habitat that have been degraded by domestic and agricultural water diversions, simplification of stream channels, and sedimentation from roads and diverse activities adjacent to streams.

Given the profound value of estuarine lagoons as rearing habitat for salmonids in central California, it only makes sense to restore the natural ecosystem functions of the river’s estuary. Pumping seven times the natural summer flow through the lower river and washing huge amounts of beach sand away from the river’s mouth through old breaching practices are no more sensible or sustainable than the reckless use of fossil fuels and other activities causing “inconvenient truths.”

We can maintain water quality, sustain kayaking and the seal populations, and achieve recovery of steelhead and salmon in the Russian River.

Russian River Estuary Facts

- The climate along California’s central coast produces a predictable “drought” lasting five months or longer every year. Here, stream flows naturally drop to very low levels by early fall.

- Where rivers flow into the ocean, wave action typically forms barrier beaches across river mouths, so that rivers become naturally cut off from the ocean. When separated from the ocean by a barrier beach, the most downstream segment of the river forms a freshwater or somewhat salty (brackish) lagoon that can provide extremely important nursery habitat for juvenile steelhead. The water quality dynamics of these lagoons are complex and dependent on inflow, geology, and ocean processes.

- Researchers found that a disproportionately large number of returning adult steelhead are reared for extended periods in these “closed lagoons” compared to the survival and return of adults that were reared mainly in headwater tributaries. The ocean survival of lagoon-reared steelhead is higher because the juveniles grow quicker and larger in the biologically rich lagoon environment.

- Prior to three major dams and the Eel River diversion at Potter Valley, summer flows in the lower river were about 20 to 30 cfs; less in some years.

- Recent historic summer flows have generally been about 180 to 220 cfs in most years.

- Because inflows are so high, the water backs up behind the beach, threatens flooding, and thus requires SCWA to breach the beach. The result: a tidal, unstable environment that is more salty, shallower than a lagoon, and a relatively poor quality habitat for rearing salmonids.

- The river’s coho salmon population is now nearly locally extinct, but for small returns due largely from a well-managed hatchery stocking program; the entire geographical unit of coho salmon between the Mattole River and Santa Cruz is endangered with extinction.

- The river’s steelhead populations are part of a geographic unit that is threatened with extinction. The river’s wild steelhead run is a small remnant of what it was 50 years ago.

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