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Tracking Water Quality in the Russian River

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Tracking Water Quality in the Russian River

By Brenda Adelman

In 38 years of tracking water quality issues and reading environmental impact reports (EIRs), Russian River Watershed Protection Committee (RRWPC) remembers only one EIR that surpassed the size, weight and number of volumes of Sonoma County Water Agency’s Fish Habitat Flows and Water Rights Project (Fish Flow Project), released on August 19th.  

That was Santa Rosa’s Subregional Long Term Wastewater Project in late 1996, a document having about 24 volumes and costing about $16 million and proposed 20% discharges into the Laguna de Santa Rosa and Russian River.  Because the threatened listing of three salmonid fish species occurred about that same time, the City ended up taking their waste to the Geysers and removing most discharges from the river. Ironically, we now have a project proposal intended to save the fish, but could kill individuals of other species instead.

The Fish Flow Project EIR ‘only’ has seven volumes, weighs in at about 22 pounds, sits almost a foot high when stacked on a table, and probably has at least 2000 pages. The document recommends new trigger points for determining flow releases from Lake Sonoma and Lake Mendocino based on local reservoir levels and winter rainfall amounts, water permit updates, minimum stream flow requirements, and partially discusses the Estuary Project, which had its own EIR a few years back.  In case you feel like punishing yourself (NOT an easy read), the document can be found at Sonoma County Water Agency and local libraries in Guerneville, Mendocino, Cloverdale, Healdsburg, Windsor, and Central Santa Rosa.  It is also on the web at:  http://www.scwa.ca.gov/environmental-documents/

The most relevant part of the document for the lower river addresses impacts of lowered minimum streamflow during normal rain years.  (The ONLY reason for lowering flows in our river area is to accommodate the Estuary Project, which has been mostly unsuccessful for the last six years.)  During critical dry periods (i.e., drought), current water law already allows flows to go as low as 35 cubic feet per second (cfs).  For average dry periods, summer flows have been allowed to go down to 85 cfs, but will be changed to 70 cfs.   Therefore, the major and most devastating flow change will occur during normal rain years when minimum flow goes from 125 cfs to as low as 60 cfs.  Although flows won’t normally go down that far (70 cfs is the target), they are allowed and therefore this comprises the worst case scenario.

No one would blame you for not wanting to read the document, but there’s still a way you can help:  write a letter describing your own river experiences including anything that concerns you.  Have you seen the river environment change in ways that concern you the last several years? Do you have a hard time negotiating your canoe or kayak? Are you worried about toxic algae affecting your dog, your child, or yourself?  Have you had any health issues resulting from being in the water?  Mail letters about your experiences and concerns to Jessica Martini-Lamb at Sonoma County Water Agency, 404 Aviation Blvd., Santa Rosa, CA 95403  Email: fishflow-eir@scwa.ca.gov

We don’t know how long toxic algae has been in the river. (Toxic algae was found at low levels by Regional Board in 2009 on Monte Rio Beach.) nor what it would take to get rid of it, but we know we don’t want it to get worse, and low flow will definitely make it worse.  In fact, Chapter 1 of the EIR on page 1-20 in the Section on Impacts it states in Impact 4.2-4: “Changes to minimum instream flows could result in a violation of water quality standards of waste discharge requirements or otherwise degrade water quality relating to biostimulatory substances in the Russian River.”   A similar finding is on page 1-33, Impact 5.7.2-5.  In both cases there is no mitigation available. (Biostimulatory substances are generally nutrients, of which there is an abundance in the lower river.  High temperatures contribute to the problem as well.)

When no mitigation is available, Directors of the Water Agency (Supervisors) would have to make a finding before approving the EIR proclaiming overriding considerations to justify a decision to allow degradation. In other words, in spite of the potential harm, and in spite of the potential violation of water law to protect our waterways, the project would move forward. It would be hard to fathom (but not impossible) that decision makers could justify selection of a dubious project over legally mandated clean water requirements.

Here are some actions people can take to help the river:Attend highly important Supervisor’s meeting on September 13th (Tuesday) at 3 pm in Supervisor’s Chambers in Santa Rosa.

Contact Ann DuBay for information:Ann.DuBay@scwa.ca.gov  It’s not necessary to speak but we really need people to attend.  Applauding at appropriate moments helps also.

Request a real community meeting to be held in Monte Rio in late September or early October to explain and discuss Fish Flow EIR.

RRWPC will compose a target letter summarizing EIR concerns, by early October.  This can be used instead of writing your own (or you can copy it and put on your own stationary).  Contact us to get on our list: rrwpc@comcast.net  or write us at RRWPC (to help us with potential legal action), P.O. Box 501, Guerneville, CA 95446  We email copies to everyone on our list.  We will also try to get target letter on our website at the same time: www.rrwpc.org.   If you would like to contribute to RRWPC via PayPal for our legal fund, you can do so on our website or you can mail a check to RRWPC at P.O. Box 501, Guerneville, CA 95446