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OPINION: Annual Estuary Project Meeting


OPINION: Annual Estuary Project Meeting 

By Brenda Adelman

Lower flows necessary to accommodate Estuary Project…

Given that the Fish Flow Project: Environmental Impact Report (EIR) will be released soon, it’s critical that the Estuary Project be viewed in its larger context, especially since this important annual community meeting will occur about two months before the release of that document. For those unfamiliar with the deceptive title, “Fish Flow Project”, that is the name for the project that, if approved, will permanently LOWER minimum summer flows. 

The Fish Flow Project would cut flows by about 44% in a normal rain year (Summer flows can go down to 70 cfs at Hacienda if it is approved, rather than current 125 cfs. In drought years, flows can go down much lower). Given that river temperatures are far too warm for cold-water fish in summer, and very high phosphorus levels are documented at all monitoring stations in our area, lowered flows provide perfect conditions for the proliferation of toxic algae. 

Low flows may cause more toxic algae…

The existence of toxic algae motivated posting of “DANGER” signs along lower river beaches most of last summer when a healthy dog was exposed to toxic algae died within two hours of exposure. (Humans can get sick from the algae, but almost never die from it, although children and elderly are more vulnerable than other adults. It is unclear whether humans can get sick by eating exposed fish. Dogs seem to be the most vulnerable.)

Background for Biological Opinion…

The Biological Opinion (BO) was released by National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in September, 2008, after Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) had spent almost ten years in consultation with the agency about impacts of their operation on threatened fish species. Their focus was on SCWA’s and Army Corps of Engineers’ (ACOE) joint operation of Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma dams, and also SCWA Mirabel facilities that provide water to approximately 500,000 people in Sonoma and Marin counties. The object was to identify ways in which those facilities inadvertently caused harm to threatened coho, Chinook, and steelhead species. Recommendations included lowering of flows in lower river to create lagoon habitat at the Estuary. 

The BO was never subjected to public review; it was authorized by the Federal Government under the Endangered Species Act. Its goal was to improve habitat for threatened fish species heading towards extinction, but the potential of unintended consequences such as proliferation of toxic algae were not addressed and should not be acceptable. Once established, the poisonous algae may be extremely difficult to completely eradicate and will become a serious health and safety issue for humans, pets, and wildlife. 

No consideration of toxicity issues…

Toxicity issues received no mention in the BO including bioaccumulation and bio-magnification of toxic substances, bacterial and/or nutrient pollution, etc., although State & Regional Water Boards required monitoring of conventional pollutants (bacteria, nutrients, dissolved oxygen, temperature, etc.). None of the local State and Federal fishery agencies seem to consider toxins as part of the fish habitat, even while United States Geological Survey (USGS) conducts many studies demonstrating that pharmaceuticals, pesticides, personal care products, etc. have clearly harmed fish and aquatic life.

In fact, the USGS website on toxic substances and their Emerging Contaminants Project ( states, “Research is documenting with increasing frequency that many chemical and microbial constituents that have not historically been considered as contaminants are present in the environment on a global scale.“  Many peer reviewed studies have been conducted on transgender fish and frogs and other aquatic life, especially downstream of wastewater treatment plants. Now that the use of recycled water is becoming more prevalent, the residual toxins in even highly treated wastewater will increasingly be spread around and often end up in our waterways to cause possible harm. The State Water Board has refused to seriously consider the full ramifications of large amounts of research conducted so far. Fishery agencies barely acknowledge that it exists. (Interestingly, NMFS hired a very well know Northern California fisheries biologist to study this issue in an East Coast river.)

Chinook and coho not considered…

Ultimately, NMFS virtually eliminated Chinook from BO consideration as they were not considered to be at great risk, and coho were pretty much abandoned, (BO: p. 237: “….prospects of achieving a viable population of coho salmon” are impossible without emergency water supply source in Dry Creek & adequate funding), leaving the main focus on steelhead trout. The Estuary Project was intended to provide critical habitat for juvenile steelhead in a fresh water lagoon (estuary) before commencing their ocean sojourn. Between May 15th and October 15th, and once the river mouth closed, SCWA was to construct a channel that would hold fresh water in and salt water mostly out, as the river drained slowly into the ocean. It was theorized that by lowering flows at Hacienda, the river mouth would remain closed longer as the steelhead thrived in the lagoon. 

River mouth closings unpredictable…

Yet in many recent years of record, the mouth has remained opened most of the summer and when it did close, it often reopened within a day or two. (Some SCWA publicity materials on Estuary Project give a totally different impression.) When the ocean begins to roil up in mid or late September, that is when lengthier closings occur, as the ocean pushes the sand onto the beach to form a beach barrier that closes the mouth. Yet when SCWA attempted implementation of the project in that period (to October 15th), conditions were often too dangerous to get people and equipment out there to do the work. In fact, there has been only one time in seven years when the project has been implemented. And yet, SCWA is obligated to continue monitoring the mouth, open it when floods threaten in late fall through early spring, and maintain closure during summer project period (May15-Oct.15). Only a negative ruling by the State Water Board to not authorize requested flow changes could stop the Fish Flow Project.

Let’s stop Fish Flow Project…

Decision 1610 is State Law that governs Russian River flows and would have to be changed to accommodate the Fish Flow Project. The EIR will come out in June or July and there will be a 60-day comment period. Hopefully there will be strong interest in this issue and folks will attend meetings and write letters. In meantime, please attend community meeting for more information. 

Russian River Watershed Protection Committee (RRWPC) is happy to help facilitate sharing of information and letter writing campaign. Please send note asking to be on mailing/email list at and also read information at our website: Mention that you want information on Fish Flow Project when available.