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The Russian River paradox: A deep dive into flow reduction and its ecological implications

The Russian River, a lifeline for Sonoma County's diverse ecosystem and a source of water for over 600,000 residents, is at the center of a controversial decision that has sparked a heated debate about water management, ecological preservation, and economic vitality.

The State Water Resources Control Board (State Board) recently approved a request by the Sonoma County Water Agency (Sonoma Water) to reduce the river's instream flows. This decision, coming after a period of record rainfall, has raised eyebrows and sparked concerns among environmentalists, local communities, and skeptics who question the logic behind reducing the flow of a river to benefit its ecosystem.

The Temporary Urgency Change Petition (TUCP), filed by Sonoma Water, allows for a reduction in the river's flow from 185 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 125 cfs in the upper Russian River, and from 125 cfs to 70 cfs in the lower Russian River. This change, effective from May 1 through October 15, 2023, is said to be in line with the 2008 Russian River Biological Opinion and aims to enhance the salmonid habitat in Dry Creek and the mainstem Russian River.

Critics argue that this move could potentially harm the river's health and the species that depend on it. They question the timing of the decision, particularly after a period of record rainfall, and express concerns about the potential for water being sold to other regions.

However, Sonoma Water defends the decision, stating that the Russian River watershed is recovering from three years of consecutive drought and these changes are a crucial part of managing the water supply for both the people and the environment in Sonoma and Marin counties.

The agency has also committed to a five-day running average of daily stream flows, ensuring that flows don’t drop below 110 cfs on the upper Russian River and 60 cfs on the lower Russian River. This approach, they argue, allows them to manage instream flows more effectively to meet the objectives in the 2008 Russian River Biological Opinion.

The 2008 Biological Opinion, while over a decade old, is based on extensive research and provides a long-term management strategy for the river's ecosystem. However, it's crucial that these strategies are periodically reviewed and updated as necessary to reflect the most current scientific understanding.

Adding to the complexity of the situation is the impending decommissioning of the Potter Valley Project, a century-old hydroelectric project that diverts water from the Eel River to the Russian River. The decommissioning could potentially lead to lower water levels in the Russian River, further impacting tourism and local water supply.

As the region grapples with the realities of climate change and the need for sustainable water management, the Russian River serves as a poignant reminder of the delicate balance between ecological preservation and economic vitality. The decisions made here could set a precedent for how other regions manage their water resources in the face of increasing environmental uncertainty.

Sonoma Water has pledged to continue consultations with various state and national bodies to address any water quality, fishery, or public health and safety concerns. However, the controversy surrounding this decision underscores the need for transparent and inclusive water management practices that take into account the needs of all stakeholders, both human and ecological.

For more information about the TUCP and the state of the drought, please visit

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