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Sonoma County Drought’s Uncertain Results


Drought’s Uncertain Results

By Brenda Adelman

You might want to consult a Ouija board to find out when the drought will end or even when it started. Weather patterns and rainfall amounts have been pretty erratic lately, as well as statements from people who track them. Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) claims this is the fourth year of drought, but rainfall numbers don’t necessarily bear that out. On the other hand, Lake Pillsbury’s water levels are definitely low now, even though, according to the State’s calculations, they have had a ‘normal’ rain year.

Erratic rainfall averages during the last four years

For example, Santa Rosa normally gets an average of 32” of rain each season. In 2012, Santa Rosa got 37.58” for the entire year according to the University of California Cooperative Extension. In 2013, they had 4.85”, in 2014: 34.66”, and in the first five months of 2015: 4.33”. So according to the numbers, in the last four years we have had two above normal years, one very dry year, and this year, which is definitely much lower than normal, although it’s still too early to know how things will end up.

Lake Mendocino’s role in lower Russian River flows unclear

The Russian River is a managed system, but it seems impossible to determine what portion of lower river summer flows are from natural runoff, Lake Mendocino or Lake Sonoma releases, groundwater influences (groundwater sometimes expands river flows in summer), and upstream irrigation runoff.

Drought Related Algae on the Russian RiverIn past years, we were told that Lake Mendocino releases helped maintain minimum levels at Hacienda, yet more recently, it was said that Lake Sonoma releases do so. But the Temporary Urgency Change Order issued recently by the State Water Board, appears to claim neither reservoir will now augment flows to meet the minimum level. Instead, minimum flows will go from 125 cubic feet per second (cfs) to a range of 65 to 85 cfs without additional reservoir supplies added to protect recreation or even the fishery until about Oct. 1st. (Since the Biological Opinion in 2008, and starting in 2009, lowering of minimum flows has been an annual event although in several years Hacienda flows were higher because of natural runoff.)

Yet, in an apparent contradiction, the Order, while appearing to agree with SCWA’s assessment that dam releases should not provide water to meet minimum flows at Hacienda, states “Term 20 of SCWA’s Permit….requires SCWA to….release from storage at Lake Mendocino sufficient water to maintain specified instream flows for the protection of fish and wildlife, and for the maintenance of recreation in the Russian River.” In addition, the recently released SCWA document, Lake Mendocino Water Supply Reliability Evaluation Report, Term 17, also states, “No additional releases are made to meet….the minimum instream flow requirements for the Lower Russian River.” (emphasis added in both statements) 

Further reductions in water flows will be necessary soon

Brad Sherwood of SCWA announced on May 8th, “It is thus likely that further Russian River flow reductions will be necessary, probably to “critical” water year levels (25 cfs) in the upper Russian River as early as July 1.” And it will probably also be necessary to request a decrease to 25 cfs in the lower river for the entire summer because of PG&E’s need to greatly lower flows in order to make Potter Valley Project repairs.

Such low flows would curtail the recreation season, harm the many creatures dependant on the river for survival, and possibly stimulate growth of toxic blue-green algae in what water remains. And because these rules are implemented on an emergency basis, all could occur without any environmental review.

And inadequacy of flows for new growth

The Water Agency’s General Manager made the following comment at a recent developers’ conference (as quoted in the Press Democrat in early May) where he stated, “…in spite of four years of drought,…we’ll have enough water, so that’s not an excuse to say we can’t build affordable housing.” However, he did NOT say how much others will have to give up in order to add new housing, or where the new water might come from.

On the same day as the conference, but at a different meeting with agency heads, he said, “It underscores the need for communities that depend on Russian River water to boost conservation efforts and develop off-river alternatives, such as recycled wastewater.” It appears that water needs of new development may be placed on the backs of current users AND the lower river.

Unfortunately, irrigation with recycled wastewater, if not done cautiously, has the potential to do great harm to the health and well-being of small children and wildlife. (We have noted many instances of runoff and over-irrigation at schools, parks, bus stops, and other urban areas where children may be exposed.) But urban and County utilities departments are acting as though recycled wastewater is the same as potable water supplies, and it absolutely is not.

EIR for permanent flow reductions to come out soon

The Environmental Impact Report for the Fish Flow Project (permanent lowering of Russian River minimum flows) will be released in a few months. We predict a major campaign by the Water Agency, the County, the City of Santa Rosa, contractors, developers, and others to support this action. Less water for the lower river means more water stays in the reservoirs for new development.

It is disturbing that monitoring of the lower river demonstrated that excessive phosphorus, algae, and bacteria proliferate there. The lower river is formally listed as impaired for sediments and excessively high temperatures and in some places, bacteria. We are concerned this regular lowering of flows will assure further degradation on a regular basis, and guarantee continued harm to recreation, the fishery, and the general health of the river and beneficial uses.

In addition, most agricultural operations have not adequately controlled their water use, required monitoring of ground water is still fiercely opposed by many, cities have not yet instituted enough strict mandatory conservation requirements with hefty penalties for abusers, nor shrunk their general plan water projections to address what appears to be repeated water shortages, and inadequate measures are in place to assure that irrigation with wastewater does not become regular discharge into streams.



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