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Russian River Flow and Fish

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Russian River Flow and Fish

By Brenda Adelman

Low flow on its way…

Ready, set, go! Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) is off and running towards permanently lowering minimum Russian River summer flows forever. Once this occurs, the risk of water quality degradation that includes increased algae and possibly toxic algae, is a virtual certainty, along with all the other problems that entails. 

The river now suffers from excessive temperatures and excessive phosphorus and the only condition holding algae somewhat in check is summer flows. Yet the Biological Opinion requires minimum flows in the lower river to be cut by as much as 50% between May 15th and October 15th. Minimum summer flows at Hacienda were historically set at 125 cubic feet per second (cfs); the proposed change can bring that down as low as 60 cfs. Not only is algae likely to increase at that level, but any other unmonitored and unregulated toxins in the river can become more concentrated and also provide greater risk.

Biological Opinion set the stage…

The Biological Opinion was released by National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in 2008. It described Russian River habitat changes needed to compensate for possible degradation caused by Sonoma County Water Agency’s water supply operations from their two dams and reservoirs (Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma) and other operations. Two salmonid fish species had been named in the late 1990’s as threatened (Chinook and steelhead), a third as endangered (coho), and as a result, the Endangered Species Act kicked in and the Biological Opinion is Federal Law. To our knowledge, it never considered other laws, such as the Clean Water Act, that govern water quality.

The Biological Opinion was never released for public input and response, nor addressed project impacts on the lower river between Dry Creek confluence and Duncans Mills. It was a result of a multi-year consultation between The Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE), the Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA), California Fish and Wildlife, and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). It was released and no changes were possible. We assume that any impacts addressed in this document will be mitigated without significant change to required flow reductions.

Fish Flow Project EIR…

While this current EIR by SCWA does give the opportunity for input, and comments will be responded to, and Directors (Supervisors) will ultimately decide on the adequacy of the EIR, we are not sure if there is a way to stop the project, as SCWA has virtually indicated that fulfilment of the requirements is mandatory in order to continue their operations and water sales. Their Urban Water Management Plan states on page 1-4, “The Water Agency must implement the following general categories to avoid jeopardy and maintain the “Incidental Take Statement” provided in the Biological Opinion: Modifying minimum instream flows in the Russian River and Dry Creek.” (other items were also listed including changes to Estuary Management). Yet, in the last seven years, SCWA attempts to implement the Estuary Project (create a fresh water lagoon for juvenile steelhead) barely succeeded once. 

NMFS has failed to manage tributary flows needed by salmonids…

Rather than try to control the ever dynamic mouth of the Russian River, NMFS’s intentions may have been better served by focusing on the historical culprit for fish habitat loss, property owner draw down of summer creek flows (especially vineyards), where salmonids liked to spawn. (Many spawning creeks such as Mark West now dry up in summer.) 

Instead, NMFS proposed a habitat management plan to create a fresh water lagoon in the Estuary by lowering flows throughout the lower river and establishing a channel that somehow blocks sea water from getting in and allows fresh water to slowly seep out. For seven years, the project has mostly failed, yet they are moving forward to permanent status anyway. (Conditions are seldom right to construct the channel appropriately.)

Saved water will serve new development in urban areas…

This proposal will allow more water to be stored in the reservoirs for water contractors to fulfill their general plan projections for new development. In fact, the recent 2015 Urban Water Management Plan stated that flows must be lowered or SCWA can be held responsible for takings of the fish (see above) and could lose their water rights as a result. We can’t help but wonder what consideration has been given to those laws that protect water quality. 

Schedule of meetings and due dates…

Only one of the three listed species will benefit from the Estuary project (steelhead trout) and the Chinook may even suffer further decline from the lowered flows during their juvenile migration in spring (downstream) and adult migration in fall (upstream), because of higher temperatures, and excessive phosphorus. 

We hope many people will participate in this process. Here’s the meeting and comment schedule: 

  • August 19th, Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) will release Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for Fish Flow Project. Comments are due October 17th. Hard copies can be purchased and also available on SCWA website and at libraries. 
  • August 24th there will be an “Open House” (information available but not a group meeting) at Monte Rio Community Center from 4-8 pm and in Cloverdale at Vets on August 22nd at same time.
  • September 13th is the big hearing before the Directors (Supervisors) in their Santa Rosa Chambers beginning at 3 pm. Please try to attend. This will probably be only opportunity to express concerns directly and give oral comments on document.

Finally, there are numerous other issues in this document that some public members may want to address, such as changes in flow in the upper river and more, but my focus will be on lower river flow changes, the Estuary project, and impacts of changes on water quality and recreation. It is very important that many people who recreate and do business in the lower river express their concerns on this matter. AND PLEASE HELP SPREAD THE WORD!

Contact Brenda at rrwpc@comcast.net for more information. I would welcome opportunities to present information at group meetings in August and September. Contact me by email or drop a note at P.O. Box 501, Guerneville, CA 95446. RRWPC is starting a fund for possible legal action and donations can be sent to Guerneville address, or PayPal can be accessed at our website at www.rrwpc.org (Checks can be made out to RRWPC.) We appreciate any help you can provide.