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Sonoma County Gazette
Gualala River Watershed

Saving the Gualala Watershed

Aug 28, 2018


By Thomas E. Cochrane, Geologist

The Threat 

The 300 square mile Gualala River Watershed is located in northwestern Sonoma County and partially in southwestern Mendocino County. It’s unique in that there are no cities or large towns within this watershed. The western half of this region is home to a sizable redwood forest. In fact, there are a couple of sections of ‘old growth’ redwoods still uncut. Save The Redwoods League ( has acquired a section of one of the Richardson Ranches east of Stewarts Point to preserve these trees.

However, this vital watershed is under threat – from increased temperatures in both the water and the terrain resulting from Climate Change, as well as stepped-up timber harvesting. Clear-cutting reduces the canopy and allows the land to become hotter and drier. Although modern forest practices prevent cutting immediately adjacent to streams, 200’ high redwoods cast a long shadow. This reduction of shading has allowed the temperatures of the streams to become too warm to support the salmon and steelhead fisheries.

Water usage is increasing as more homes are built within and adjacent to the watershed in Gualala and Sea Ranch. An increased number of vineyards are also being planted in the interior of the watershed (this region has become desirable for growing pinot noir). This has led to increased sediment in the streams with the addition of the fertilizers and herbicides the growers use. Friends of the Gualala River (FOGR, is leading an active fight to protect the watershed. I was a co-founder of the group many years ago and we fought and won the defeat of the ‘water bag scheme’ which some of you may recall. Water is the fight of the future as clean water is either being overused, or its quality is threatened. We can replace oil and natural gas with green energy -- but finding new sources of clean water is far more difficult.

Gualala River Estuary

What YOU Can Do to Help

To combat these threats, we need more public awareness and involvement. The Gualala River Watershed Council ( is working with the timber companies and owners on watershed problems and restoration. Friends of the Gualala River are fighting Timber Harvest Plans (THPs) and additional construction of vineyards in the watershed. Various state agencies have halted building expansion in Gualala until the water company there finds additional water sources OR builds a reservoir for storage to handle demand during the dry season.

A few dedicated individuals take part in an annual river cleanup, but the good news is trash is minimal and most visitors as well as locals enjoy the rural landscape and do not dump their trash hereabouts, or pick up a piece of garbage when they see it.

To save our river, our environment, we must all become involved.

The thoughtless act of throwing a cigarette or having a barbeque on a windy day can lead to a forest fire. Because of past logging, the undergrowth of shrubs and small trees has produced a huge supply of tinder-dry material. Old growth redwood forests can handle fires, but young forests cannot.

Although our fish are now greatly reduced in numbers, the watershed’s streams still have precious habitats for other creatures. Some people still careen in their 4WD vehicles in these fragile streams. This must stop. The effect of one such reckless excursion is long-lasting – immediately killing critters and fish, but you can see still these tracks months or even years later. If instead, we all continue to collectively press for wise stewardship of our area’s beautiful natural environment, we can take a page from the Native Americans and ensure it’s protected “for seven generations” hence…

Thomas E. Cochrane is a CA Professional Geologist CA. (#6124), author of Shaping the Sonoma-Mendocino CoastExploring the Coastal Geology of Northern California(named Four-Eyed Frog Books in Gualala’s #1 Bestselling Book of 2017). His new book, Tornados, Rattlesnakes & Oil – A Wildcatter’s Memories of Hunting for “Black Gold” chronicles his years in the Midwest oil patch – plus offers his sage perspective on “Big Oil” as a former industry insider, and now-avid environmentalist. For a list of book retailers, visit:       

Join Friends of Gualala River: Community involvement is the heart of our efforts to defend the river and the species whose lives depend on it. We need volunteers to help with letter writing, design and distribution of flyers and brochures, fund raising, and scientific and legal research. We also need steering committee members to help with outreach, communication and long-range strategies. To volunteer, send email to


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