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Montage Healdsburg resort developer fined record $6.4 million for water violations

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

State water quality regulators have fined the developer of Montage Healdsburg, the ultra-luxury resort set to open Saturday, more than $6.4 million for environmental violations tied to hotel construction during the stormy winter months of late 2018 and early 2019.

The fine — the largest environmental penalty of its kind on the North Coast — was approved Friday by the Santa Rosa-based North Coast Water Quality Control Board following a nearly eight-hour virtual hearing.

The board’s 5-0 vote affirmed a fine recommended by agency prosecutors as part of a two-year enforcement action against Sonoma Luxury Resort, a subsidiary of Encinitas-based developer the Robert Green Co.

“Today, the prosecution team proved that there were widespread, persistent stormwater violations at the discharger’s construction project,” Dan Kippen, prosecuting attorney for the State Water Resources Control Board, told the regional body Friday. “Ordering the discharger to pay the proposed liability will send a message not only to this discharger that its conduct was unacceptable and must be avoided for its future projects, but will also send a message to all future developers that they flout the (construction general permit) and other water laws at their own peril.”

The 38 violations put forward by regulators included woefully and repeatedly inadequate erosion control measures documented over several months by water quality investigators at the 258-acre resort property at Healdsburg’s northeastern edge, last estimated to cost $310 million. Prosecutors said nearly 9.4 million gallons of prohibited runoff and sediment-filled stormwater escaped the heavily sloped construction site and into streams of the Russian River watershed, leading to two forced work stoppages. The affected tributaries included Foss Creek, a steelhead trout stream.

“I can stand here before all of you right now and tell you in my 20 years, I’ve yet to see a site this nasty,” Jeremiah Puget, senior environmental scientist with the regional board, said Friday. “If you take this case in its entirety, we believe that we went above and beyond our role — as did the city of Healdsburg — in trying to return this site into compliance.”
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Sonoma County supervisors eye changes to rules governing vineyard development

Tyler Silvy, NORTH BAY BUSINESS JOURNAL

Changes sought by grape growers to Sonoma County’s ordinance governing vineyard development are set to come before the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, with proposed revisions that county leaders say will streamline permitting and encourage more environmentally friendly farming practices.

The changes are meant to update the county’s Vineyard Erosion and Sediment Control Ordinance, established in 2000. The rules have long been a source of friction between the county’s dominant industry and environmental interests.

But the changes before the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, supporters say, are a common-sense approach to adapting land use that will be better for the environment.

“In my mind, not only does this not weaken (the ordinance), but this increases it,” said Supervsior James Gore. “I want to see landowners and producers changing practices to less-intensive systems. And if we can streamline this process, and reduce the costs of permitting to do that, that is the ultimate win-win.”

The revisions call for greater leeway and eased rules for growers who are seeking to replant vineyards, including incentives for those who use less invasive methods. The changes also would adjust permitting costs and timelines.

The changes came about through a series of meetings over the past two years between grape growers and Supervisors Gore and Lynda Hopkins, who together represent the Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Westside Road and the Alexander Valley.

The original ordinance stemmed from a public push to prevent damaging erosion, tree removal and water pollution problems linked to vineyard operations, which now cover more than 60,000 acres in Sonoma County. In one case, a major landslide in 1998 caused Dry Creek to run red with sediment-laden runoff. The rules have been revised at least three times since the initial ordinance.

The latest proposal emerged from discontent within the wine industry about the work of an an outside contractor the county uses to oversee the vineyard erosion rules.
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West County environmentalists recognized

Camille Escovedo, SONOMA WEST TIMES & NEWS

Sonoma County Conservation Council’s “Environmentalist of the Year” award to Rick Coates and Chris Poehlmann

The Sonoma County Conservation Council bestowed this year’s Ernestine I. Smith “Environmentalist of the Year” award upon three local luminaries of the environmental justice movement at its holiday networking and environmental awards ceremony Friday, co-hosted with the Sonoma Group of the Sierra Club.

The council named Maya Khosla, Rick Coates and Chris Poehlmann as its three “forest champions.” Khosla is a wildlife biologist, filmmaker and poet laureate of Sonoma County whose recent Legacy Project sought to address the 2017 Tubbs Fire and regeneration with poetry in open spaces, as stated by her website. Meanwhile, the careers of Coates and Poehlmann draw them deep into the West County forests and often the courtroom, maneuvering the legal system to prevent logging projects that jeopardize regional watersheds and forests.

“Not all grassroots organizers are really good at the technical bureaucracy of multi-page permits, understanding the fine details, but these two men have been really, really good at both of those, and try to do as much as possible within the regulatory framework,” according to Wendy Krupnick, council secretary and a member of the annual event’s organizing committee. “But occasionally, when that does not work, the only avenue left is a lawsuit.”

She said the Sonoma County Conservation Council (SCCC) receives nominations from the broader environmental justice community for review by a subcommittee of primarily members of the SCCC’s board of directors. The awardees receive a certification from the California state legislature honoring their contributions to environmental advocacy, Krupnick said.
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How beavers became North America’s best firefighter

Ben Goldfarb, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

The American West is ablaze with fires fueled by climate change and a century of misguided fire suppression. In California, wildfire has blackened more than three million acres; in Oregon, a once-in-a-generation crisis has forced half a million people to flee their homes. All the while, one of our most valuable firefighting allies has remained overlooked: The beaver.

A new study concludes that, by building dams, forming ponds, and digging canals, beavers irrigate vast stream corridors and create fireproof refuges in which plants and animals can shelter. In some cases, the rodents’ engineering can even stop fire in its tracks.

“It doesn’t matter if there’s a wildfire right next door,” says study leader Emily Fairfax, an ecohydrologist at California State University Channel Islands. “Beaver-dammed areas are green and happy and healthy-looking.”

For decades, scientists have recognized that the North American beaver, Castor canadensis, provides a litany of ecological benefits throughout its range from northern Mexico to Alaska. Beaver ponds and wetlands have been shown to filter out water pollution, support salmon, sequester carbon, and attenuate floods. Researchers have long suspected that these paddle-tailed architects offer yet another crucial service: slowing the spread of wildfire.

This beaver-dammed wetland in Baugh Creek, Idaho, is a so-called “emerald refuge” that can serve as a firebreak and refuge for other species during wildfires. Source: Joe Wheaton, Utah State University.

“It’s really not complicated: water doesn’t burn,” says Joe Wheaton, a geomorphologist at Utah State University. After the Sharps Fire charred 65,000 acres in Idaho in 2018, for instance, Wheaton stumbled upon a lush pocket of green glistening within the burn zone—a beaver wetland that had withstood the flames. Yet no scientist had ever rigorously studied the phenomenon.

Read more at https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2020/09/beavers-firefighters-wildfires-california-oregon/

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Delta on the edge

Kurtis Alexander & Santiago Mejia, THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

In a California landscape defined — and divided — by water, a single issue unites the people who live here: digging in against the tunnel

In spring and summer, when the skies are warm and the shadows thin, California’s snowy Sierra Nevada and southern Cascades unleash billions of gallons of fresh water each day, a melted bounty that nourishes the state’s mightiest rivers before converging slowly on the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

Here, across a sun-baked plain of rickety towns and sprawling countryside, the cool water winds through streams and sloughs. It fills irrigation ditches that feed cornfields and vineyards. It flows through shallow bays flanked by wooden fishing piers and riverside homes. Finally, it’s pumped off to the sinks and showers of two-thirds of Californians, many giving little thought to where the water came from — and just how vulnerable the supply has become.

The delta is an unlikely frontier, and an even more improbable battleground. So close to the Bay Area, but apart. Hidden beyond freeways and tucked beneath the wide open of the Central Valley. Vital to the future, yet wrapped in the past.

This sleepy place, though, is waking, reluctantly and resoundingly, jolted by the state’s modern-day demand for water. Those who live here, where family farms span generations and a postman still delivers mail by boat, fear that looming changes could wipe out this singular slice of California and turn their figurative backwater into a literal one.

The stakes could hardly be higher. Gov. Gavin Newsom, like governors before him, wants to overhaul how water moves through the delta. He’s proposing a 30-mile tunnel that would streamline the delivery of water from the Sacramento River, a bid to halt the ongoing devastation of the delta’s wetlands and wildlife while ensuring its flows continue to provide for the rest of the state.

The pressures of climate change on water supplies have only increased the urgency to act. And the coronavirus pandemic and months of shelter-in-place orders haven’t slowed the planning. A tense situation is unfolding even as California’s attention is elsewhere.

Follow the roads through the delta and you’ll see the signs and stickers, on pickup trucks and bars, at cattle ranches and trailer parks, and next to bridges and boatyards: “No tunnel. Save our delta.”

The starkness of the choice laid out in the slogan is deliberate. Residents here not only see the project as a water grab, but worry the central force in their lives and livelihoods — the movement of fresh water — could be lost as the tunnel allows Silicon Valley, Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley’s vast agricultural industry to satisfy their thirst. President Trump’s insistence on shipping more water to big farms to the south has only added to the anxiety.

“The tunnel just isn’t good for the delta,” said Mark Morais, 70, owner of Giusti’s, a popular roadhouse serving pasta and steaks on checkerboard tablecloths in Walnut Grove, about 30 miles south of Sacramento. “If you divert the water, you’re going to have less for us.”

The communities in the region, which spreads across about 1,100 square miles in parts of five counties, rarely speak with one voice. Local farmers see these watery reaches as meant for agriculture. Those casting for bass and stripers prioritize fish. Boaters want open water. Longtime residents and recent retirees want to sip a cold drink along the waterside and gaze out at their share of California paradise.

Read more at: https://www.sfchronicle.com/projects/delta-on-the-edge/part-one/

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Landmark lawsuit settlement between environmentalists and state water boards strengthens Delta protections

California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, MAVEN’S NOTEBOOK

Three California environmental nonprofits secured a landmark settlement agreement with the California State Water Resources Control Board to uphold the common law Public Trust Doctrine and other legal protections for imperiled fish species in the Sacramento River and San Francisco Bay/Sacramento – San Joaquin Delta Estuary.

The lawsuit, filed in 2015 by the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (“CSPA”), the California Water Impact Network (“CWIN”), and AquAlliance, brought sweeping claims against the State Water Board. It alleged that the agency’s management of the Sacramento River and San Francisco Bay-Delta displayed an overarching pattern and practice of:

failure to comply with the Public Trust Doctrine;
failure to implement Sacramento River temperature management requirements;
failure to ensure that fish below dams be maintained in “good condition”; and
acceptance of water quality below minimum Clean Water Act standards.

“The Water Board’s long-standing pattern and practice of inadequately implementing foundational environmental laws has brought the Central Valley aquatic ecosystem to the brink of collapse. This settlement agreement is a major step forward, compelling the State Water Board to fulfill crucial legal requirements it had previously ignored,” said Bill Jennings, CSPA Executive Director.

Read/download the full press release here

Source: https://mavensnotebook.com/2020/07/21/lawsuit-settlement-landmark-lawsuit-settlement-between-environmentalists-and-state-water-boards-strengthens-delta-protections/

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Op-Ed: PacifiCorp should move forward with historic Klamath dams agreement

Russell ‘Buster’ Attebery and Joseph L. James, OREGONLIVE

Attebery is chairman of the Karuk Tribe. James is chairman of the Yurok Tribe.

For nearly 20 years, Klamath River tribes and our allies have fought tirelessly to see the removal of four aging Klamath River dams. We have engaged in protests, attended countless meetings, commissioned technical reports, filed lawsuits and negotiated directly with dam owner PacifiCorp and dozens of other stakeholders. For us, dam removal is absolutely necessary to restore our struggling fisheries, maintain cultural practices, and provide tribal members who struggle to make ends meet access to traditional subsistence foods.

At the same time, dam removal and fisheries restoration would help our neighbors who depend on agriculture as well, resulting in fewer regulatory burdens and greater water security for them. That win-win for struggling rural communities in the Klamath Basin helped bring us together to negotiate with the dam owner, PacifiCorp. It wasn’t easy, but by building trust and respect one discussion at a time, we ­– along Oregon, California and PacifiCorp, owned by billionaire investor Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway – signed the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement in 2016.

It seemed a historic success. In exchange for supporting dam removal, PacifiCorp was assured that its financial contribution for such an effort would be capped at $200 million. In addition, the agreement called for protecting the utility from liability by transferring the license of the dams to an independent nonprofit entity before the dam removal process starts.

Unfortunately, PacifiCorp is now rethinking its commitment to that agreement, after a July ruling by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The commission, which must approve the license transfer, decided that PacifiCorp could partially transfer the dams to the Klamath River Renewal Corp., the nonprofit created to manage the dam removal and related environmental restoration activities. But the commission ruled that PacifiCorp must remain a co-licensee.
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Sorax, the Ghost of Salmon Past, speaks at the Board of Supervisors in 2012 on the passing of the VESCO ordinance

I am a ghost of Coho Salmons past, once born and raised in Dutch Bill Creek below Occidental. My last reported sighting there was in the 1960’s. I speak for all salmon and wildlife species not able to attend your meetings.


Do you realize that as public servants and supposed stewards of the Russian River that it is the only river in California to have three listed Salmonid species: Coho, Chinook and Steelhead? That is three distinct species of unique, ancient animals. Shall I remind you that humans, all 6 billion of you, compromise only one distinct species, which at this point ought to be renamed “Homo consumous.”

We as salmon, as recently in our evolution as 150 years ago, used to live in peace with the humans of this land, and we co-evolved with the harbor seals and sea lions and our natal forested creeks. The abundance of our families was so great that your early pioneering families remarked “that we were so numerous” they could “walk on our backs.” This all changed with your arrival. In the last 100 years, or during the time of those 3rd, 4th & 5th generation families who so proudly and loudly exclaim in your newspapers to be stewards of the land, it was they who cleared this land of over 95% of its old growth forests, 95% of its riparian forests, drained 95% of its wetlands.

I ask you where are my friends the Grizzly, the Elk, the Antelope, the Marbled Murrelet? My Coho ancestors used to number 500,000 in California rivers and now our runs number less than 5,000, to as low as 1,000 individuals! We are nearing the brink of functional extinction simultaneously with such gloating of stewardship.

It is critical for all of you to recognize that, compared to the past, this land is actually in a highly degraded state. You all need to own up to the fact that your ancestors are indisputably responsible for the overwhelming genocide of the Pomo and Miwok peoples, the silvacide of the great forests, the soilacide (as your activities have eroded and compacted the once rich fertility) and the salmonicide (as I stand before you at the tail end of our existence). If you have the vision and courage, this can change, you can turn this around if you act in earnest now.

This erosion ordinance you pass today with its especially inadequate riparian setbacks is a feeble first step and leaves me with fear for my children, but a critical move in the right direction if you decide to take more steps and begin walking towards a future vision of ecological watershed integrity.

Remember, I am a fish of the forest. Without trees, my breeding streams fill with sediment, dry up due to lack of groundwater recharge and what water remains becomes lethally hot for my young. Every aspect of your development paradigm must be questioned and reevaluated with restorative criteria. You must question your roads, parking lots, housing, industrial, agricultural, logging and mining practices. We the salmon are dying from the cumulative impacts of your collective inabilities to think like a watershed. If we go extinct and fade from memory, so will you!

In closing, since my spawning gravels are so embedded with silt from the denuded, compacted hillsides, I want to offer each of you, as servants of the public trust, an egg of mine that hopefully will help your thoughts to incubate on taking the recovery of Totem Salmon seriously and birthing a new vision of a shared watershed commons for the sake of all our relations.

Thank you,

The Sorax, aka Brock Dolman, Director of the Water Institute at the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center.

Source: https://oaec.org/our-work/projects-and-partnerships/water-institute/

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Salmonid counts below replacement level in Eel River, CDFW announces

Lana Cohen, THE MENDOCINO VOICE

Many elements have contributed to the decline of these fish species, including warmer and lower water, sediment flowing into the river, invasive species, and dams as factors that have had the most devastating impact.

In order for the Chinook and steelhead, whose populations are plummeting up and down the West Coast, to rebound in the Eel River, there should be at least 26,400 fish returning from the ocean to the Eel to spawn annually, according to the State of Salmon, a salmon information sharing venue run by The Nature Conservancy.

Although the Eels fish population was larger this year than last, Fish and Wildlife’s June 1 report shows that the population fell far below the margin for species recovery. Only 8,263 made the journey, they wrote.

Due to the dwindling population of fish, Fish and Wildlife has set a two fish limit per day for recreational salmon fishing. More details can be found at the Fish and Wildlife’s Ocean Salmon Sport Regulations page.

Read more at https://mendovoice.com/2020/06/salmonid-counts-below-replacement-level-in-eel-river-cdfw-announces/

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Gualala River estuary conservation effort takes a $2.1 million step toward success

THE MENDOCINO BEACON

Sometimes it does take a small group of passionate locals to conserve a river estuary forever.

In 2017, 113 acres of scenic and environmentally sensitive coastal wetlands and adjacent uplands surrounding the Gualala River went up for sale for the first time in over 70 years. The community came together, signaled their desire for open space with sensitive public access versus development. The movement began.

Thursday, the Redwood Coast Land Conservancy announced that it has received three grants totaling over $2.1 million for the Gualala River Mill Bend Conservation Project that they are stewarding for the community. The US Fish & Wildlife Service awarded the project $1 million through the National Coastal Wetlands Conservation Program. An $845,000 award came from the California Natural Resources Agency through the Environmental Enhancement & Mitigation Program. The third grant award of $300,000 came from the California State Coastal Conservancy and will allow for initial site assessment and a conservation master plan.

“(Redwood Coast Land Conservancy) feels fortunate to share conservation goals with our federal and state partners. The Mill Bend project will clean up a degraded area from a century of timber mill use and enable wildlife habitat restoration, estuary enhancement for steelhead and salmon and thoughtful public access including continuing the California Coastal Trail,” said Kathleen Chasey, project manager for the conservancy.

Founded in 1992, the Redwood Coast Land Conservancy is the local land trust for the Mendo-noma coast. The conservancy has taken the lead role to secure the funds for the Mill Bend acquisition, planning and stewardship and is conducting a $2.7 million “Campaign to Preserve Mill Bend.”

“We plan to raise enough funds through additional smaller foundation grants and community contributions to preserve and protect this vital property in perpetuity, said President Christina Batt.

In addition to the three grants awarded, Redwood Coast Land Conservancy must raise $600,000 for stewardship since funders for the acquisition require substantial stewardship funds be in place to demonstrate adequate resources to manage and protect the property forever. The group has been quietly contacting key donors and has lined up $300,000 in lead gifts. The official launch of the campaign to raise $600,000 was to begin in March but was postponed to now because of the COVID-19 virus outbreak. Contributions toward the Mill Bend campaign are welcomed.

More information about RCLC and the Campaign to Preserve Mill Bend can be found on the RCLC website at www.rclc.org. Contributions to RCLC can be made via its website or by sending a check to P.O.Box 1511, Gualala, CA 95445

Source: https://www.mendocinobeacon.com/2020/05/22/gualala-river-estuary-conservation-effort-takes-a-2-1-million-step-toward-success/