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Two more hearings for Fish Flow Project

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Two more hearings for Fish Flow Project

By Vesta Copestakes

MORE TIME. Those are words we’d all like to hear more often!

In response to pubic requests, outcries would describe them better, the Sonoma County Water Agency 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). It’s a HUGE document with more than 3,000 pages covering every imaginable study, test and potential consequence of the project to consider while preparing the DRAFT EIR. Bottom lone is that we  - the public - get to READ this document and ask questions that MUST be answered in the final EIR. Long process, which is why we asked for, and received, more time to accomplish the task. Now let’s see if we DO it!.  

It would be easy to say that the biggest concern people have is nutrients in the river increasing as dilution decreases with lower flows in the Russian River during hot, summer months...peak recreational season. 

Local Control 

Nothing is real about the flow of the river coming out of Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma. Both lakes are dammed and water is released according to need. The biggest change this Flow Project would make is not just how much water comes down river and out to sea, what volume, etc., but how it is regulated.

Currently the  STATE tells us when and how much water to hold or release according to their rules. This Fish Flow Project brings LOCAL control to when and how much. No longer would it be mandated to hold and release twice a year. The Water Agency would be able to hold and release according to water levels. weather, rainfall, hot vs. cold, etc. etc. and not just twice a year but many times a year…by need. 

Local control is HUGE! You may remember when winter was coming after an incredibly hot, drought summer and the State told us to release water to anticipate rain. We cried. Valuable water rushed out to sea and rain never came to fill the lakes. With local control that would not happen. Our Water Agency wants this local control so that kind of stupidity never happens again. 

Nutrients in the Water

“Nutrients” covers a lot of subjects from leaking septic systems to run-off from agricultural properties along our riparian corridors...dairy ranches, vineyards, farms, etc. Riparian corridor rules have changed a lot in recent years so what was once allowed, is no longer, but it takes time for these changes to be implemented so problems are still very much present.

One of the rules that has yet to be enforced, but it in the works, is measuring nutrient levels at the source - or near the source and fining individuals who violate state rules...North Coast Regional water Quality Control (NCRWQC) has new rules waiting to be implemented but has no power to make the county comply and the county is finding it really difficult to comply because much of what needs to occur requires home owners along the creeks and river to install new, clean wastewater systems that do not leak into the river. Many people don’t have sufficient income to do this, so it’s  a rock and a hard place rule that will be challenging to enforce. 

WHY this Project

I’m going to switch over to what the Water Agency has to say now because THEY know WHY much better than I do. But from a personal perspective - I believe this needs to be done…not just because the Feds say our fish are endangered and have told us we HAVE to SAVE these fish, but because my own personal beliefs are that these endangered fish our “Canary in the Coal Mine.” If our water is not safe for them, it’s not safe for us either. Learn what you can, make your thoughts be known, and ask questions

Here are the opportunities we have to HEAR about this project. The first hearing was long and just about put many of us to sleep…not your every day subject, but we need to know. It’s OUR home Our water and OUR Fish. 

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 willbe 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:

• 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.

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

• 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.

• 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.

• 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

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. 

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. 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). 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.

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. 


We are in the midst of spending $48 million dollars to restore habitat in Dry Creek, a project to be finished supposedly by 2020.(but it is a government project so let’s assume it will take longer.)

That’s quite a lot of money, to be paid mostly by the taxpayers of Sonoma County.  Shouldn’t we see what the results of this massive fix it program are before we begin to threaten the whole lower Russian River with loss of what is truly their river?    This environmental work is the newest work project to restore the loss of fish habitat created by the construction of the Warm Springs Dam thirty years ago, which blocked about 150 miles of spawning creeks for coho salmon and steelhead.  There have been many more,all costing millions including the DCFH Coho program operated from 1980 to 1996 when it was shut down as a failure.  Since the gold rush, salmon populations have been steadily declining due to a number of factors, including stream diversion, damming, mining, timber harvesting, agricultural runoff, and overfishing, in addition to natural predation, drought, and perhaps climate change. It seems in this hostile environment, perhaps not even God can grow a coho. The logging done in the 50’s must have been their death knell.  

In 2001, another DCFH program was initiated to prevent extirpation of coho salmon in The RR basis and a ten million building was built for their operation “.The Russian River Coho Salmon Captive Broodstock Program has increased its production of coho salmon from 6,100 fish in 2004 to more than 172,000 in 2011. Biologists noted a large increase in the number of adult, broodstock coho salmon returning from the Pacific in 2011, an indication that the program is contributing to bringing back this historic salmon in the Russian River watershed. The new building houses tanks and equipment used to raise native coho salmon from a genetic broodstock of native fish and will improve quality control in the hatchery and improve rearing conditions for the broodstock.” Is there any evaluation of why this too failed?  So far rumor has it that the cost of this program totals 19 million dollars...can you confirm or deny that?   

We also just paid for a new Mirabel ladder and Fish Screen, also required by the Bioligical Opinion of 2008 because of the detrimental effects of the outdated fish ladder, and the lagoon that was dammed in the River to infiltrate into the streamside gravel beds that supply the wells. Their opinion  ” The principal effect of the water diversion facility at Mirabel Wohler is the loss of juvenile salmonids that may become entrained through or impinged on the water intake screens. Some minor loss of salmonids may also be caused by higher rates of predation from fishes  in the Wohler impoundment or from stranding when the inflatable dam is inflated or deflated.”  Thus the 12 million dollar project just opened at Mirabel Wohler.  Shouldn’t we evaluate the effects of this new mitigation measure?

In the 1970’s when many of us were opposing the building of the dam for environmental reasons,we were told by “experts” then that the mitigation of a fish hatchery would completely fix the problem of the spawning grounds ruined by blocking Dry Creek to homecoming fish. Many promises followed, until 2015 when we were told that the water rights of many homeowners would be usurped in four tiny creeks for an entire year or longe as a last ditch efford to “save the coho”. Did it?  

2015/16 Adult returns
In the winter of 2015/16, a minimum of 30 coho adults were observed returning to the mainstem Russian River and monitored tributaries. PIT tag data was used to generate an estimated count of 192  Broodstock Program coho salmon adults returning to the The Sea Grant program reported this about the 14 creeks they surveyed: ‘On average, for all 14 streams surveyed in 2015, only 17% of the habitat where adult salmonids were observed spawning and 39% of the habitat where young fish were observed rearing remained wet into September.  For the Coho Broodstock effort… my math wrong, or is that about 500000 dollars a fish.?

I don’t believe the most important part of the Fish Flow project however is the saving of fish.  I think it can be found in:

#4, “Extend to 2040 the Water Agency’s right to divert and redivert 75000 acre feet of water annually to ensure a reliable Water Source for more than 600000 people.”   Which leads to the question, how does the Sonoma Co. Water Agency continue to have rights to the water of the Russian River, taken from the riparian corridor with industrial sized water pumps when they have no historical claim to the River?  Riparian water rights are just that.  Property owners and towns that t have a contiguous border on county streams are the first to have rights to the water.  Even to this day, Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Forestville, Rohnert Park, Sebastopol and others, including thousands in Marin County are not in any way entitled by water law to our precious resource..  Before we allow twenty more years of Sonoma Co. Water Agency reign,  can’t we exam their record and failures?  .  As part of that, is it time for a new board of directors that is not, at the same time, the County  supervisors, who have a conflict of interest?  Years ago, Mr. Miller who called himself the  H20 Czar , was able to override by fiat the what now appears to be best interests of the Russian River and those that lived along it by fiat and behind doors deals, according to the book, How to Build a Water Empire””

Why can’t a pipe be built from the Warm Spring Dam directly to the Wohler distribution pumps and  thereafter to all the other users of our water?  I believe that it would cost around 300 million, but considering what we’ve spent so far on the direction of the BO, all perhaps destined to fail the fish and us, couldn’t a pipeline be possible?  And instead of billing it to all residents of Sonoma County,bill it to each and every water user that benefits from the wells along the bank of our Russian River. And especially to the users in Marin County.  

And lastly, on this latest idea for low flow and creating a freshwater lagoon at the mouth of the River  “ where “baby coho could grow”, what evidence do you have that this will work?(We’ve been bamboozled experts before. )   Here is the dissenting opinion of Dr. Mike Bradford of Vancouver, Canada who give his recommendation on the Biological Opinion.

How do you answer this opinion of Dr.Bradford’s?    And is it included in your EIR?

In reviewing the analysis and supporting literature, I find the BO to be plausible, but not particularly well organized or supported by information currently available. I suggest that the Agency use pathways of effects/influence diagrams or other tools to organize the logic behind the various scenarios of active or passive estuary management. With this approach the strength of evidence to support each assumption can be made explicit and uncertainty can be incorporated in the analysis

The Russian River estuary appears to be the meromictic type, developing an anoxic saline layer after closure of the berm. When the berm is open, the estuary is dominated by marine influences. Tidal inflows maintain salinity and oxygen concentrations, and the freshwater layer is shallow and variable. Closure of the estuary deepens the freshwater layer, and prevents tidal circulation in the deeper saline layers. The saline layer increases in temperature, and oxygen levels rapidly decline. Depending on the bathymetry of the estuary the development of an anoxic layer likely reduces both benthic and pelagic invertebrate productivity in the estuary.

The presence of high salinity water appears to limit the use of the estuary by juvenile steelhead to upstream areas or creek mouths. The absence of extensive steelhead use in open estuaries was also observed by Higgins (1995) and Maahs and Cannata (1998).  Steelhead abundance in the Russian River also appears to be low  .I conclude from this brief review that there is considerable uncertainty about the assertion that the Russian River would form a freshwater lagoon under historical conditions of low inflows and long periods of closure. The BO would be better supported through the use of a more systematic approach to developing the lines of evidence for this assertion.  

Predicting the future, or the outcome of management actions, in any ecological situation is fraught with uncertainty that often can never be fully resolved. One useful approach is to break down the assumptions into manageable pieces and evaluate the strength of evidence that supports them (Jones et al 1996).


Janice Stenger