Lawsuit Filed of Jenner Estuary Project Approval
The Estuary is a culmination of everything upstream.…
By Brenda Adelman
Meandering 110 miles through Mendocino and Sonoma Counties’ scenic river valleys, the Russian River passes through a multitude of diverse habitats, even while it’s main channel and tributaries have been dewatered, dammed, channelized, stripped of gravel, timber, and riparian vegetation. The impacts are most obvious during drought periods when low flows highlight much of the resulting harm.
The river suffers from high temperatures, excessive sediment and nutrient pollution, and in some places, high bacterial counts. Excessive algae and invasive plant proliferation (especially Ludwigia) indicate extensive nutrient impairment coming from many different sources.
Thick sediments cloud the water in winter. And little is known about impacts from toxins, which are scarcely measured or regulated. It is only in the last forty years, after magnificent salmonid had survived for millennia, that they may now face their imminent demise as a result of the culmination of all these circumstances.
Exit to the Sea
The mouth of the Russian River at Jenner is the culmination of all that has happened upstream. Relatively little is known about its biological history but it has now become a focal point for a last ditch effort to save Steelhead salmon in what may be a futile and desperate attempt to find politically viable salmonid habitat improvement. (Most property owners along tributary streams are adamant about not having their water rights constrained. Dewatered streams are one of the largest contributors to loss of habitat, yet there is little political will to reverse this damage. This circumstance may be causing steelhead to spend more of their life span in the main Russian River where Chinook already reside.)
It is unlikely that the Estuary Project will compensate for the damage that has evolved upstream and in fact, as determined in the Estuary Project’s EIR, will itself cause additional water quality and other impairments!
In addition, project impacts to threatened Chinook have been virtually ignored. This threatened species inhabits the main river for much of the year and may be most impacted by the Estuary project and its need for low flow. All facets of the watershed are connected to everything else, and separating the Estuary from the rest of the river, as has been done with this project, is merely exacerbating the problem.
Estuary Management Project Approved!
The Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) Board of Directors (Supervisors) approved the Estuary Management Project and certified its Environmental Impact Report on August 16, 2011, in spite of the submission of at least ten letters appealing for further review. Russian River Watershed Protection Committee (RRWPC) submitted a 21-page letter enumerating prior and new concerns about the project. There was no formal response to comments, but Directors discussed the project before the formal vote.
National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) staff literally threatened Supervisors with being in violation of the Endangered Species Act if they did not certify the EIR and approve the project immediately. They stated that sanctions would be taken against anyone opposing the project. Shirley Zane and Mike McGuire expressed strong reservations about taking this action without a more thorough review of new comments, but then both voted for certification.
By this action, Directors certified that no new information had been received to alter EIR findings, and thereby approved the document as written.
Immediately after certifying the document, SCWA staff submitted the Notice of Determination (indicating their action from earlier in the day) to the County Clerk. This immediately started the clock ticking on a lawsuit. Anyone wanting to file a petition challenging this action had until September 15, 2011, to do so.
RRWPC reluctantly files lawsuit challenging Estuary Management Project…….
On September 14, 2011, RRWPC filed a lawsuit against the Sonoma County Water Agency requesting that the Court rescind certification of the EIR and require revisions to and recirculation of the document. It was clear from many comments on the project that most people concerned about the river also support programs to save the fish, but almost none supported this specific project.
The mouth of the river is about the wildest part of the Sonoma Coast and is constantly shifting. This dynamism will make this project exceedingly difficult to maintain. Furthermore, there is no endpoint to this project, no goals, and no real definition of exactly what they are going to do or how many fish they will save. There are serious and admitted, but inadequately mitigated impacts to the seals, recreation and water quality. Furthermore, the project would cost at least $1 million a year at a time when government has limited funds
In the meantime, fishery agencies are doing little or nothing effectively to stop the draw down of flows by agriculture in the major fish spawning tributaries. Most fish advocates believe that this is where fish preservation efforts are most needed.
Some specific concerns identified in the lawsuit include:
SCWA relied upon an inadequate project description by separating the Estuary Project from the annual Temporary Urgency Changes and Fish Flow Project and thereby failed to evaluate all potential impacts of entire project
SCWA failed to adequately disclose impacts to recreational users and the environment throughout the lower Russian River areas, including areas up to Vacation Beach. Impacts that were not addressed included: health and safety risks, bank erosion, water depth increase, loss of beach front areas, hazardous swimming conditions, degraded water quality impacts resulting from prolonging the presence of a lagoon, and increased presence of invasive species.
SCWA failed to adequately disclose impacts of low flow conditions resulting from Temporary Urgency Changes Orders and Fish Flow Project, including the potential of increased pollution levels of nutrients, mercury, heavy metals, bacteria, and temperature and potential impacts to Chinook salmon present in the river.
SCWA failed to adequately disclose the Project’s impacts on harbor seals and their conclusion that impacts to seals are less than significant with mitigation is not supported by substantial evidence
SCWA references to an undisclosed adaptive management plan improperly defers mitigation. The DEIR does not disclose the details comprising the Adaptive Management Plan. DEIR also refers to monitoring and updating of the plan, but does not inform decision makers what the plan is, what triggers plan implementation, and what monitoring would take place.
If you want to participate in this action
Please contact Brenda with questions at firstname.lastname@example.org or view our new website with photographs, Petition challenging project, RRWPC’s 21 page letter, our recent Estuary Brochure, and more at We would also appreciate contributions of any size to fund our effort. Checks may be made out to RRWPC and sent to P.O. Box 501, Guerneville, CA 95446. Or you can access PayPal at our website.