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What IS - What Could Be

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What IS - What Could Be
Russian River Confluence March 24th at SRJC’s Shone Farm

By Don McEnhill

You might have caught wind of an upcoming event; the Russian River Confluence March 24th at SRJC’s Shone Farm and wonder what is this all about?

Simply put, it is a gathering of people in our watershed to explore “what is” and “what could be” on the Russian River. As we wrote in the January Sonoma Gazette, our watershed has some profound problems that make our community and wildlife more vulnerable to extreme weather we expect due to a shifting climate. We are more vulnerable to floods and droughts because our past actions have resulted in a river that is 80% smaller than 100 years ago. This has cost our community the free natural services the river used to provide, known as ecosystem services, such as flood control, pollutant filtration, groundwater recharge and wildlife and salmon habitat.

The disconnection of our river from its floodplains and development of former wetlands for agriculture and development leaves less room for floods and no off-ramps for pollution once in the river. When our river floods and spreads out – like it has this year – we increase groundwater recharge that protects us from prolonged droughts when out lakes will be too low or empty. 

That annual spreading out of the river used to happen many times every year, now it happens only every 5-10 years reducing groundwater recharge.

If we had know that our past actions would result in losing millions of dollars of free natural services we might not have taken those actions. We took them because we thought that we were in “control”, that we could manipulate rivers with no negative consequences. The old engineering paradigm was omnipresent in all our actions. Until recent years every vineyard, road and building we put up was done with the notion that we are in control, not nature. The dams we build would protect us from floods and provide all the water we want while we make creeks smaller to make sub-divisions or vineyards bigger

Essentially we have taken our Russian River for granted and have pushed the river into a corner thinking we are in control. 

This winter reminds us we are NOT in control. 

Every time the river floods or long droughts come along they clearly show us we are not in control, we just have an illusion that we control nature. When extreme weather shows up we all are reminded nature is really in the drivers seat and we are passengers.

If we’re not in control of the River, what should we do?

What all this is leading up to is a new concept – regeneration or regenerative development – that turns todays thinking on it’s head and realizes we can never be independent of our natural world despite our engineering feats of dam building and such.

Regenerative development leads to natural systems regaining their ability to sustain and nourish life in our watershed. It sounds a lot like good old restoration but it’s quite different. According to Shannon Murphy of Regenesis, ecosystems are not static they are constantly moving or in process – either evolving or devolving. Restoration can be and is often undone; a good example is planting riparian trees along the river that are then scoured away by extreme velocities that our tiny remnant river delivers. Regeneration would realize that we first have to give the river it’s room back to clam down velocities so that new trees can survive high flows of winter. I liken regeneration as working in partnership with the River rather than seeking to control the river or force our will on it. 

Stepping back from the natural world, regenerative development starts with we humans transforming our relationship with the natural world. Restoration often fails because our underlying human systems have not changed and so we repeat the same cycle that caused the need for “restoration” in the first place. Rather than asking where do we need to restore the watershed, the right question is: How can we re-align human activity with the evolution of our river ecosystem? The answer is different for each place but the elements of regenerative development always start with us humans and our relationship to the River.

Bank Stabilization Projects

To illustrate this idea of re-aligning our relationship with the river we will look at “bank stabilization” projects that attempt to halt the erosion of stream banks. Bank erosion is rampant because we have forced all the flow of the river into a space that is 80% smaller forcing it to go faster to move the same amount of water in that tighter space. At the same time as we have shrunk the river, we have straightened it which is completely unnatural for a river. When we shrink and straighten rivers they seek to re-attain their former profile generally by banging on the sides which is bank erosion, this is a process called widening and is part of the natural evolution to shrinking and straightening rivers.

When banks erode, the typical response is bring in the big rock rip-rap and armor the bank, in essence defend it from the river being in control and again try to force our will on the river. In recent years we have greened stabilization projects up with plants but still we seek to re-establish the artificially narrow channelized stream that existed before the erosion occurred. 

This winter almost every bank stabilization project failed showing us again who is in control. The sad reality is many bank stabilization projects were funded by fish restoration funds but in fighting the river, we have fought against the river’s ability to naturally create habitat. One such project has failed in so many high flow events we have lost count 

On the other hand several small projects on the Napa River, where the response to bank erosion is recognizing the river needs more room and providing that extra space by creating “inset floodplains”. That space they are giving up in Napa is some of the most expensive land in this country since it is prime vineyard land. They are working in partnership with the Napa River recognizing what the river wants to do and working with it – rather than against it. The Russian River just wants some of it’s land back to re-attain equilibrium and until we give up our illusion of control of being in command we will keep losing valuable natural services.

I tell people that when the river floods it is talking to us. In the last two months the river is screaming at us that we took too much land from it, reclaimed too many of the side channels, wetlands and “swamps” to profitable enterprises. It tells us we need to be play nice with it or suffer more dire consequences. Are we listening? Are we willing to be in partnership with the evolution of the River ecosystem in response to our past actions or still thinking we’re in control? Can we really control nature? No we can’t so we need to work with nature to regenerate its ability to protect us from extreme weather or keep suffering very dire consequences in future droughts and floods.

On March 24th the Russian River Confluence Event brings together Federal, state and regional policy makers, representatives from Native American Tribal communities, water and wastewater service providers, non-profit organizations, students, anyone interested in watershed health, resource conservation districts, business owners, farmers, landowners, artists, writers, musicians and story tellers. This is a unique event envisioned to culminate and inspire a series of ‘beyond sustainability’ conversations and gatherings intended to tap the collective capacity of the Russian River Watershed community. If you live in and care for the Russian River Watershed, we hope you will plan to attend this landmark event at Shone Farm (7450 Steve Olson Ln, Forestville) We will begin a journey to create a new more healthy relationship with the River. 

On March 24th the Russian River Confluence Event brings together Federal, state and regional policy makers, representatives from Native American Tribal communities, water and wastewater service providers, non-profit organizations, students, anyone interested in watershed health, resource conservation districts, business owners, farmers, landowners, artists, writers, musicians and story tellers. This is a unique event envisioned to culminate and inspire a series of ‘beyond sustainability’ conversations and gatherings intended to tap the collective capacity of the Russian River Watershed community. If you live in and care for the Russian River Watershed, we hope you will plan to attend this landmark event at Shone Farm (7450 Steve Olson Ln, Forestville) We will begin a journey to create a new more healthy relationship with the River. 

INFO: russianriverconfluence.org and to register. 

We hope our community attends with an open mind to help us answer the two questions about the River

 

Russian Riverkeeper is a Healdsburg-based not for profit community benefit organization that depends on your tax-deductible contributions for our work.  To donate or learn more about our work, please visit russianriverkeeper.org!