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Fish Flow Project Updates

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Fish Flow Project Updates

The Sonoma County Water Agency Board of Directors (Board) extended to 180 days the public review and comment period for the Fish Habitat Flows and Water Rights Project (Fish Flow Project) Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR). The Board also added two hearing dates on the Fish Flow Project, on November 16 in Cloverdale and November 17 in Guerneville (details below).

“I heard from people and agencies throughout the county about the need to extend the time period. This is a complicated project and environmental document. Tripling the time available to read the draft EIR will help people understand the project and inform their comments,” said Water Agency Chairman Efren Carrillo.

“The Russian River is 110-miles long, and we need to make sure that people have an opportunity to comment without having to spend a full day driving to and from a meeting,” said Water Agency Director James Gore. “Holding hearings in Cloverdale and Guerneville will make it easier for people living near the headwaters or near the ocean to participate.”

The Fish Flow project would lower minimum flows in the Russian River to benefit threatened and endangered juvenile fish, change the hydrologic index to better reflect watershed conditions and secure the existing rights to 75,000 acre feet of water used to provide drinking water to 600,000 residents in portions of Sonoma and Marin counties. The document describes the proposed Fish Flow Project, the purpose of the project, why it is necessary and the potential environmental impacts of the project.

Public Hearings and Comments

The DEIR is available by going to, at Sonoma and Mendocino County libraries and by purchase (flash drive or hard copy) at the Sonoma County Water Agency offices. Two public workshops were held in August, a public hearing was held on September 13, and two additional public hearings will be held on:

November 16, 6 p.m.: Cloverdale Veterans Hall, 205 West 1st Street

November 17, 6 p.m.: Guerneville Veterans Memorial Building 16255 First & Church Streets

The 180-day public review period began on August 19. All written comments are due by 5 p.m., February 14, 2017 and can be sent to or to Sonoma County Water Agency, Attn: Fish Flow DEIR., 404 Aviation Boulevard, Santa Rosa, CA 95403.

Need for the Proposed Project

Coho and Chinook salmon and steelhead were once abundant in the Russian River watershed. Today, coho are on the brink of extinction (and are listed as endangered on state and federal endangered species lists) and Chinook and steelhead are listed as threatened in the Russian River watershed.

In 2008, a federal agency (National Marine Fisheries Service) determined in its Russian River Biological Opinion that by lowering the minimum amount and reducing the velocity of stream flows, the Water Agency can create better habitat for coho and steelhead. When these fish are young, the velocity of the water in Dry Creek and the Russian River makes it difficult for them to thrive. A state agency (California Department of Fish and Wildlife) agreed with the federal government (it issued a Consistency Determination on the Russian River Biological Opinion) as coho salmon are also listed as endangered under the California Endangered Species Act.

In order to avoid jeopardizing these species, comply with the Endangered Species Act, and continue to operate its system of supplying water to 600,000 people, the Water Agency is asking the state (the State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board)) to modify its existing water right permits to comply with this federal determination.

Starting in 2010, the Water Agency was required by the Biological Opinion to request temporary changes to minimum instream flow requirements on the Russian River during the summer months to improve conditions for young salmon. Once the State Water Board approves the proposed changes, the Water Agency will no longer have to ask for changes on an annual basis.

The Fish Flow Project has five purposes:

The Fish Flow Project includes proposed changes to State Water Board Decision 1610 in 1986, plus other technical and clarifying amendments to the Water Agency’s water rights.

The Fish Flow Project has five purposes:

1. Comply with National Marine Fisheries Service’s Russian River Biological Opinion, which requires the Water Agency to ask the State Water Board to lower minimum instream flow requirements in the Russian River and Dry Creek in order to improve conditions for coho and steelhead.

2. Improve conditions for threatened Chinook salmon, by better preserving cold water in Lake Mendocino, which can be released for the fall Chinook migration.

3. Replace a measuring requirement in the Water Agency’s water right permits, called the “hydrologic index,” to better reflect conditions in the Russian River watershed.

4. Extend to 2040 the Water Agency’s right to divert and re-divert 75,000 acre feet of water annually, in order to ensure a reliable water supply for more than 600,000 people.

5. Add existing points of diversion for Occidental Community Service District and the Town of Windsor as authorized points of diversion in the Water Agency’s water right permits.

Proposed Flows

After extensive modeling by Water Agency staff and consultants, and consultation with National Marine Fisheries Service and California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Fish Flow Project proposes a five-step flow schedule, based on hydrologic conditions (explained below). The five-step schedule, with Schedule 1 being the wettest years and Schedule 5, the driest, results in five different schedules of flows.

In the upper river (above the confluence of Dry Creek and the river): For the wettest years (Schedule 1), minimum proposed flows would be 105 cubic feet per second (cfs) year round. In the driest years (Schedule 5), minimum instream flows are proposed to be 25 cfs.

In the lower river (below the confluence of Dry Creek and the river): For the wettest years (Schedule 1), minimum proposed flows would be 135 cfs October 16 through April and 70 cfs from May through October 15. In the driest years (Schedule 5), minimum instream flows are proposed to be 35 cfs year round.

In Dry Creek: For the wettest years (Schedule 1), minimum proposed flows would be 75 cfs January through April, 50 cfs May through October 15 and between October 16 and December 31, 105 cfs. In the driest years (Schedule 5), minimum instream flows are proposed to be 75 cfs October 16 through March and between April and October 15, 50 cfs.

Modeling finds that 68 percent of the time, Schedule 1 would likely be used. In only 1 percent of the time – during drought – would Schedule 5 likely be used. Of the remaining years, Schedule 2 would likely be used 20 percent of the time; Schedule 3, 6 percent; and Schedule 4, 4 percent. While the Water Agency is requesting that the State Water Board lower minimum instream flow requirements, flows will rarely reach the minimums because Water Agency operators manage flows with a buffer of about 15 cfs to account for water loss along the river and in Dry Creek.

Determining Hydrologic Conditions

Currently, minimum instream flows are set depending on hydrologic conditions as measured at Lake Pillsbury, which is part of PG&E’s Potter Valley Project. Lake Pillsbury is located in Lake County, outside the Russian River watershed. Since 2006, there has been a 60 percent reduction in the amount of water annually diverted from the Eel River to the East Branch Russian River (and eventually Lake Mendocino) via the Potter Valley Project. The Fish Flow Project proposes changing the hydrologic index to the Russian River watershed to more accurately reflect conditions in Lake Mendocino and the Russian River.

Currently, minimum instream flows are set depending on whether hydrologic conditions as measured at Lake Pillsbury are “normal,” “dry” or “critical.” While this three-step schedule is easy to understand, it may not accurately depict watershed conditions, nor does it allow the Water Agency to quickly adjust to changing conditions. For example, the hydrologic condition may be “normal” for several rainless winter months, until it finally drops to the “dry” schedule using the current hydrologic index.

The Fish Flow Project includes a one through five index naming system (a practice commonly used in other watersheds). Schedule 1 refers to the wettest conditions; Schedule 5 is the driest. The proposed naming system is a one through five index (a practice commonly used in other watersheds). Schedule 1 refers to the wettest conditions; Schedule 5 is the driest.

Adding two more steps in the schedule will allow for more responsive management of water storage. This is particularly true for Lake Mendocino during the summer and fall months when it’s important to preserve cold water for later releases to benefit rearing steelhead and the fall-run Chinook salmon migration. The proposed five schedules will allow for additional, smaller reductions in minimum instream flows, particularly in the Upper Russian River – benefiting fish and habitat and water supply reliability.