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Russian River Estuary Management Plan UPDATE

Russian River Estuary Management Plan UPDATE

By Tim McKusick

About three dozen concerned citizens were in attendance at the Monte Rio Community Center on the evening of June 11, 2015 to hear Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) staff provide updates on the Russian River Estuary Management Plan, and updates on the summer river flows.

Supervisor Efren Carrillo introduced the speakers and moderated the brief question and answer period that followed. 

Jessica Martini-Lamb gave a very thorough report on the fish monitoring stations (located in some of the tributaries and the main stem of the lower Russian River) and spoke of this summer’s plans for the upcoming Estuary Management season.

She concluded her talk by reporting that the fish-counting stations were pulled out about a month earlier than has been done in the past due to the tributaries “disconnecting from the main stem of the river” earlier than in the past. When approached after the meeting for totals of the 2015 fish counting effort, Martini-Lamb somberly stated that they were very low. “Would you describe them as dismal”, I asked? “Yes”, she answered. But was quick to point out the great fish-count numbers in 2013.

Jeff Church (SCWA) gave a detailed report on the 2014 water quality monitoring results. Possible pollution sources contributing to the increased algae blooms were a hot topic. Dogs defecating on River beaches, failing septic systems, and possible pollution in the Laguna De Santa Rosa (from days of old-canneries, etc) were all pointed to as possible sources. He agreed with an audience member who pointed to the cows in the Estuary as another contributing factor. Church reported that phosphorus levels were elevated at all monitoring stations in the lower river. 

Matt Brennan, of Environmental Science Associates gave the preliminary results of the study of the historic Goat Rock State Beach Jetty. National Marine Fisheries Service’s (NMFS) Russian River Biological Opinion (RRBO) requires the Water Agency to study the jetty to determine if and how it impacts the formation of the sand bar (known as a “barrier beach”) at the mouth of the Russian River Estuary, and subsequently the impact of the jetty on water levels in the estuary. 

Brennan’s report, with historical information going back to the 1930’s, went into great detail outlining the various techniques being employed to better understand the structural aspects of this man-made river barrier. Data from studies done by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and NORCAL Geophysical Consultants, Inc. helped map materials long buried in the sand. Monitoring wells installed in 2014 showed where river water and sea water penetrate the jetty. 

These temporary wells will be monitored for two or three years while a determination is made on whether or not to abate the Jetty. Brennan commented that the next study may be to figure out how to dismantle the jetty and what to do with the large amount of material that would have to be removed. 

Pam Jeane (SCWA) spoke on the topic of low flows in the river. Jeane explained that in order to comply with the 2008 RRBO of reducing river flows to help the young Coho and Steelhead during the summer and to preserve water in Lake Mendocino during the drought, water releases are being strictly controlled. 

PG&E diverts water from the Eel River into Potter Valley and eventually into Lake Mendocino and the Upper Russian River. The SCWA found it necessary to petition (via Temporary Urgency Change [TUC]) the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) in February 2015 to reduce flows when PG&E had to do maintenance on their Potter Valley Facility, thereby reducing the amount of water available to the Russian River.

In May, 2015, due to minimal spring rain, the SCWA found themselves asking for (and receiving approval for) yet another TUC to further reduce the outflow from Lake Mendocino.

Unbeknownst to the SCWA at about the same time, PG&E was requesting another drastic reduction in their Eel River diversions due to the lack of snowfall in their Lake Pilsbury watershed, which feeds into their Eel River water diversion. This caused the SCWA to apply for an emergency amendment to their recent TUC Order allowing even further reduction in releases from Lake Mendocino.

June 15 is the time when the inflatable dam at the Wohler Pumping Station is installed, further slowing the flow to the lower river.

Ann DuBay (SCWA) reported on SCWA Conservation Incentive Programs and on the positive results of SCWA customers’ conservation efforts, showing that their customers actually exceeded projected water saving goals. DuBay tempered her statement by reminding the audience that with summer just beginning, outdoor water use has only just begun. 

The results of the upstream water release reductions are painfully apparent in recent days on the lower river. At low tide, when the tidal influences are eliminated, the Estuary water level is at its lowest. The depth gauge at Visitor Center is high and dry…The bases of the pilings of the Visitor Center are high and dry…Green algae lines the river’s banks and sand bars exposed by the low flow. 

A sobering sight, indeed, with Summer just beginning. To say nothing of the plight of our threatened and endangered species that rely on the River for survival. 

For everything you need to know about the history and progress of this project, please visit the Water Agency website: