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Sonoma County Gazette
Kayakers in the Safeway parking lot after Russian River Flooding.
Kayakers in the Safeway parking lot after Russian River Flooding. Damages on 12/11/14 over $2 million. (Photo: Boston Globe)

Climate Change

and the Russian River Water Problem

Mar 29, 2017
by Don McEnhill, Russian Riverkeeper


(Photo: Boston Globe)

Climate Change is in the news more and more despite the White House windbag ordering that EPA and NASA delete all references to climate on their websites and publications. Even more worrisome is his order to erase trillions of pieces of data used by scientists around the world to help document and address the issue. Luckily hackers are busy finding and stashing that data in non-US servers and databases. Even if he succeeded in erasing all that data, we still have enough data to date to show us that our Climate is will warm for decades and we’ve already warmed to the point where our weather has changed. These climatic changes will manifest in the Russian River and California as a Water Problem and our future will be dominated by too much or too little water.

Reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

Most if not everyone reading this is aware of the need to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG’s) like the carbon dioxide from our cars. This effort is intended to reduce the GHG’s that are driving our planet to hotter temperatures every year. This is something everyone should take action on everyday by reducing vehicle trips, driving fuel efficient vehicles and carpooling. While we should continue all our efforts to reduce GHG’s, all that effort will not save us from much bigger floods and much longer droughts that we can expect from warmer global temperatures. We have to both address the problem of climate change, GHG emissions, AND the symptoms, bigger floods and longer droughts, at the same time. It’s a bit like Apollo 13 while flying it, an almost impossible task but it was done.

Cause and Effect

Why do we have to work on both at once, why can’t we just focus on the cause first and the symptoms later? We can’t because our watershed and our state’s environment and economy are both dependent on water. This wet winter reminds us that in 1862 California had a series of atmospheric river events that turned the Central valley into an inland sea 300 miles long by 20 miles wide. If that happened today, our state would be bankrupt, 60% of southern CA residents would have no water and doubt we’d get much help from DC. Looking at the flip side in the last 1,000 years we’ve had 300 year long droughts, thought the last drought was tough imagine one that lasts 100 generations? Climate change plus our past actions to eliminate wetlands and shove rivers into tiny channelized corridors have made us far more vulnerable to natural disasters than we were during our states biggest in history. The Climate problem is a Water Problem in our Russian River Watershed - it could bury us.

As I illustrated in our January Sonoma Gazette piece, “Watershed View of RR Problems”, we have shrunk the space the river occupies by roughly 80% and at the same time narrowed it by 3-10 times leaving little space for water. When we do get rain it is trapped in what is more like a narrow deep ditch than a river in nine out of ten years but we need that recharge every year. The water can’t spread out and can’t recharge groundwater basins, can’t provide nursery habitat for tens of thousands of salmon and can’t store water upstream to avoid flooding downstream. On the flip side, reducing groundwater recharge as we drill new wells every day is a recipe for totally running out of water in a prolonged drought that lasts more than ten years.

So we have a big water problem in our watershed and the first question is what can we do about it, what can you do about it? The good news is we can increase our resiliency to Climate Change but we need to act before the next big curveball from Climate Change or it will hurt our community!

3 actions to build a more resilient Russian River

1. Permanently reduce our water consumption at our homes, businesses and in the fields and vineyards. This leaves more water for the ecosystem and keeps our reservoirs more full leading into the next drought.

2. Reduce water pollution every way we can. Pollution makes water less useable and between our human needs and supporting our totem species Salmon we need every drop.

3. Increase groundwater recharge by widening streams and in urban areas slowing, spreading out and sinking in water through swales and ran gardens. This increases the volume of water stored in our most drought proof place and also helps reduce flooding!

One of our biggest focuses at Russian Riverkeeper is seeking every opportunity to make more room for streams and wetlands and luckily we’re not alone. Sonoma County Ag Preservation and Open Space District, Sonoma Land Trust,Sonoma RCD, theSonoma Co Water Agency and some vineyards we work with are all seeking the best opportunities for larger landscape scale stream or river widening. We know it’s the single best way to increase groundwater recharge since a UC Davis study on a widening project on their Consumes River Preserve re-filled groundwater tables even at huge irrigation pumps in the severe drought conditions of 2014.

We re-filled a very empty tank in a drought year – that is amazing. Ofcourse the Russian River isn’t doing that today and that is why we’ll all looking for opportunities. At our homes we can add swales and rain gardens that can make our yards and gardens more complex and beautiful and reduce our water use at the same time.

Reducing water use isn’t too hard; we all practiced the last two years in the drought and did a good job of reducing use by 30%. Keeping some of those habits can maintain conservation at 10-15% of our pre-drought use and going back to our old ways just ratchets up pressure when next drought comes. Businesses have many opportunities and some good motivation in reducing their costs; water is a big one, to make more profits. Encouraging employees to help find ways to save water for incentives inspires the people who likely have the best ideas to bring them forward and get a bonus. At our house we still have our buckets in showers and keep our habits going as it saves us every month when our bill arrives.

Reducing pollution is easy.

The simplest method is source control by not allowing pollutants where rain can wash them into streams. A good place to start is replace toxic pesticides and herbicides with less harmful or natural products that protect your health as well as our waterways. From our past studies the biggest source of pesticide pollution is not vineyards but our household use of toxic products to kill things like ants. We have more pesticide toxicity in our urban creeks and sediments than we do in agricultural areas so us non-farmers need to lead the effort on that one. We can go one forever on this topic, as reducing pollution is the core of what Waterkeepers do but we’re going to save that for another day to stay focused on thriving during Climate Change.

Ultimately our collective actions can easily add up to our community having a much brighter future under our changing climate and even more importantly for our children. If we don’t act we are selfishly passing the problem of a river that is vulnerable to Climate Change and a more risky economic future to our children and grandchildren – time to take action for a Resilient Russian River!



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