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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.”
Continue reading “Montage Healdsburg resort developer fined record $6.4 million for water violations”

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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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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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Local coalition advances plan to remove Scott Dam on the Eel River, acquire Potter Valley Project from PG&E

Ryan Burns, LOST COAST OUPOST

n a major development for both water rights and the environment on the North Coast, an unlikely coalition of five regional entities today filed a plan with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to take over the Potter Valley Project, a hydroelectric facility that diverts water from the Eel River.

For Humboldt County residents in particular, the plan is significant because it calls for the removal of Scott Dam, a 98-year old hydroelectric wall that has had major detrimental impacts to native migratory fish populations, including salmon and steelhead.

The five entities in the coalition known as the Two-Basin Partnership include the County of Humboldt, the Mendocino County Inland Water & Power Commission, the Round Valley Indian Tribes, California Trout and the Sonoma County Water Agency.

These groups have distinct and sometimes conflicting objectives for the water that’s at stake, with environmental interests clamoring for fisheries restoration while agricultural users in the Potter Valley and water agencies in the Russian River basin have their own uses in mind. Agricultural interests in the Potter Valley and upper Russian River basin want the water to irrigate their crops, primarily vineyards. Sonoma and Mendocino water agencies want it to supply their customers and meet their contract obligations.

“The glue that has held this two-basin solution together is that everybody has a heck of a lot to risk here,” Congressman Jared Huffman told the Outpost this morning. “Nobody has a slam dunk on what they want.”
Continue reading “Local coalition advances plan to remove Scott Dam on the Eel River, acquire Potter Valley Project from PG&E”

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Scott Dam slated for removal in plan by Sonoma County and partners to control hydropower project

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Enviro Updates: From the Eel River Action Plan 2016, by California Trout: “The Eel River is the third largest river entirely in California.The Eel River ecosystem, its salmon and steelhead populations, and other native fish and wildlife populations have been in decline for the past century and a half. It has been transformed from one of the most productive river ecosystems along the Pacific Coast to a degraded river with heavily impaired salmonid populations.”

A nearly century-old dam on the Eel River that impounds Lake Pillsbury is slated for removal under a $500 million proposal helmed by Sonoma County and four other regional partners seeking to take over from PG&E a remote but pivotal hydropower project in Mendocino County.

The coalition, including Mendocino and Humboldt counties, hailed the proposal as a milestone in their effort to meet the needs of all three counties, protecting water supplies for farmers, fish and communities, including a key source of supplemental water for the Russian River system that serves 600,000  customers in Sonoma and Marin counties.

The dam removal alone, a long-sought goal of environmental groups and fish advocates, would be the highest-profile project to improve habitat for imperiled North Coast salmon and steelhead in decades, perhaps behind only the dam removals planned on the Klamath River within the next two years.

“The good news is that Scott Dam is coming out,” said Scott Greacen, conservation director for Friends of the Eel River, a nonprofit that for decades has been pursuing removal to open up more than 300 miles of spawning habitat in the upper Eel. Due mainly to dams, water diversion and other development, the river’s salmon and steelhead “have paid a devastating price, going from a million fish a year to the brink of extinction,” he said.

The proposal, submitted Wednesday to federal officials, has also stirred passions among those dismayed by the prospective loss of a 2,300-acre recreational lake deep in the Lake County portion of Mendocino National Forest. Santa Rosa residents George and Carol Cinquini, who have held a cabin at Lake Pillsbury since the 1940s, are annoyed that the 450 homeowners, ranchers and small business owners in the lake community were excluded from the planning process.

“We tried to get our foot in the door,” said Carol Cinquini, vice president of the Lake Pillsbury Alliance, which was formed last year.

“We’re very upset,” said George Cinquini, an alliance board member. The reservoir, about two hours from Santa Rosa is a haven for water sports, and without it, Cinquini warned, Russian River flows will be diminished in dry years.

But North Coast Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, who brought local shareholders together to chart the project’s future, said the proposal is the only way to guarantee a “really important water resource” for the Russian River.

The 98-year-old dam has long outlived its purpose, he said, and the coalition project, dubbed the Two-Basin Partnership, calls for habitat restoration “to rejuvenate one of our great salmon rivers in California.”

State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, whose district stretches across both drainages, called for Lake County to be added to the partnership because Lake Pillsbury and most of the Eel River’s headwaters are in the county.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/10960029-181/sonoma-county-backs-plan-to

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Friends of Gualala River move to halt Dogwood logging plan

FRIENDS OF THE GUALALA RIVER

Friends of Gualala River (FoGR) recently took legal action to appeal the decision on the Dogwood timber harvest plan (THP) to the State Appellate Court. In addition, FoGR sought an injunction on logging until the appeal could be heard. The court granted the injunction last week which temporarily suspends logging of Dogwood. Gualala Redwood Timber’s (GRT) logging of Dogwood could have commenced as early as April 15. A hearing date for the appeal is presently unknown.

The Dogwood THP includes logging 342 acres of second-growth and mature redwood forest within the sensitive floodplain of the Gualala River. The THP area is located close to the Sonoma County Gualala Point Regional Park Campground, extending up river to Switchville, at the Green Bridge, and continuing along the South Fork which flows parallel to The Sea Ranch and directly across from, and beyond, the “Hot Spot.” Additional tracts of land containing large redwoods are included in the expansive THP including units beyond twin bridges and along creeks in the Gualala River Watershed.

The THP abuts a portion of the main stem of Gualala River which is designated as a Wild and Scenic river by the State of California for its natural beauty and recreational value. The river is also listed as “impaired” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency due to excessive sediment and temperature.

FoGR first filed suit to challenge the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s (Cal Fire) approval of Dogwood in 2016. FoGR prevailed in its initial and subsequent suit against Cal Fire on the grounds that Cal Fire failed to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act.

Read more and find more information at http://gualalariver.org/news/friends-of-gualala-river-move-to-halt-dogwood-logging-plan/

Posted on Categories Habitats, WildlifeTags

Formerly endangered white rhinos flood city streets mere days after humans quarantined indoors

THE ONION

Letting out deep, powerful grunts that echoed throughout the area’s countless deserted storefronts, thousands of formerly endangered white rhinos flooded the streets of New York City Thursday mere days after residents were quarantined indoors.

white rhinos in New York

“After just a week of human isolation, this once-dying species has come back with a vengeance and is now stampeding through Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens,” said NYU Professor of Biology Jasmine Damcot, who added that the 5,000-pound animals appear to be multiplying exponentially and have been spotted sprinting through Times Square, sunning themselves on the Brooklyn Bridge, and ramming their horns into glass windows along Fifth Avenue.

“Without humans in the picture, it’s been remarkable to watch these rhinos recover and quickly inhabit every abandoned subway platform and empty bodega they can find. Frankly, if it weren’t for the resurgence of Bengal tigers and polar bears on Staten Island, I think we’d be seeing a lot more of them.”

At press time, the white rhino had once again been classified as an endangered species after a single New York City resident left his apartment to go pick up some paper towels at a local 7-Eleven.

Source: https://www.theonion.com/thousands-of-formerly-endangered-white-rhinos-flood-cit-1842410309

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Trump delivers on pledge for wealthy California farmers

Ellen Knickmeyer & Adam Beam, WSLS.com

Hoisting the spoils of victories in California’s hard-fought water wars, President Donald Trump is directing more of the state’s precious water to wealthy farmers and other agriculture interests when he visits their Republican Central Valley stronghold Wednesday.

Changes by the Trump administration are altering how federal authorities decide who gets water, and how much, in California, the U.S. state with the biggest population and economy and most lucrative farm output. Climate change promises to only worsen the state’s droughts and water shortages, raising the stakes.

Campaigning in the Central Valley farm hub of Fresno in 2016, Trump pledged then he’d be “opening up the water” for farmers. Candidate Trump denounced “insane” environmental rules meant to ensure that enough fresh water stayed in rivers and the San Francisco Bay to sustain more than a dozen endangered fish and other native species, which are struggling as agriculture and development diverts more water and land from wildlife.

Visiting Bakersfield in the Central Valley on Wednesday, Trump is expected to ceremoniously sign his administration’s reworking of those environmental rules. Environmental advocates and the state say the changes will allow federal authorities to pump more water from California’s wetter north southward to its biggest cities and farms.

The Trump administration, Republican lawmakers, and farm and water agencies say the changes will allow for more flexibility in water deliveries. In California’s heavily engineered water system, giant state and federal water projects made up of hundreds of miles of pipes, canals, pumps and dams, carry runoff from rain and Sierra Nevada snow melt from north to south — and serve as field of battle for lawsuits and regional political fights over competing demands for water.

Environmental groups say the changes will speed the disappearance of endangered winter-run salmon and other native fish, and make life tougher for whales and other creatures in the San Francisco Bay and Pacific Ocean.

After an initial study by federal scientists found the rule changes would harm salmon and whales, the Trump administration ordered a new round of review, California news organizations reported last year.

Read more at https://www.wsls.com/news/politics/2020/02/18/trump-delivers-on-pledge-for-wealthy-california-farmers/

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Op-Ed: Newsom is being played by Big Ag on Delta water

Editorial Board, SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS

Governor must use best available science to protect California’s fresh water supply

He won’t admit it, but Gavin Newsom is being played by Big Ag interests as he tries fruitlessly to negotiate a truce in California’s water wars.

The governor’s apparent willingness to play into the hands of monied, agri-business players at the expense of the health of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta remains the biggest mystery of his short tenure. It also threatens to trash his reputation as a strong protector of California’s environment.

The Delta supplies water for 25 million Californians, including about one-third of Bay Area residents. Scientists agree that allowing more, not less, water to flow through the Delta and west toward San Francisco Bay is essential for protecting fish life and providing a clean supply of drinking water for current and future generations. That means restricting pumping of water out the south end of the Delta into Central Valley farmland.

The governor has been trying for months to get the major urban and ag players to reach a voluntary agreement on water flows from the Delta. His stated goal has been to avoid the lengthy lawsuits that follow a state mandate. But on Dec. 10, the Fresno-based Westlands Water District, the largest agricultural district in the nation, threatened to pull out of the talks. Westlands General Manager Tom Birmingham said “it would be impossible to reach a voluntary agreement” if Newsom followed through on his November pledge to sue the Trump administration over the federal government’s plan to pump more water south to Central Valley farmers.

It’s the same strategy Westlands used in September to pressure the governor to veto SB 1. The bill would have established as state standards the federal environmental protections that existed before Trump became president.

SB 1 offered Newsom the tool needed to thwart the Trump administration. It might have also given the governor leverage to bring environmentalists and farming interests to the table to reach a voluntary agreement on Delta water flows. But the governor caved to Big Ag interests in hopes that they would work cooperatively on a negotiated deal. We see how well that strategy worked.

The question now is whether Newsom will capitulate again to agriculture interests by backing down on his promise of a lawsuit to block the federal government’s planned increase of Delta water diversions.

The governor has repeatedly made clear that he “will rely on the best available science to protect our environment.” That science is unequivocal.

In the same week that Newsom vowed to sue the Trump administration, the state released a draft environmental impact report based on “a decade of science and a quantitative analysis of best-available data on flows, modeling, habitat and climate change impacts.” The report made clear that the operating rules proposed by the Trump administration “are not scientifically adequate and fall short of protecting species and the state’s interests.”

The scientists in charge of the drafting the federal government’s environmental impact plan said much the same. That is, until the Trump administration got wind of the conclusions and promptly replaced the scientists. In short order, a new report emerged saying pumping an additional 500,000 acre-feet (one acre foot of water is enough to supply two households for a year) to the Central Valley wouldn’t hurt the Delta’s health.

The ball is in Newsom’s court. The governor should follow through on his lawsuit against the Trump administration and act on the best available science to secure California’s fresh water supply.

Source: https://www.mercurynews.com/2019/12/29/editorial-newsom-is-being-played-by-big-ag-on-delta-water/

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Salmon lose diversity in managed rivers, reducing resilience to environmental change

NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region, EurekAlert!

The manipulation of rivers in California is jeopardizing the resilience of native Chinook salmon. It compresses their migration timing to the point that they crowd their habitats. They may miss the best window for entering the ocean and growing into adults, new research shows.

The good news is that even small steps to improve their access to habitat and restore natural flows could boost their survival.

The curtailment of high winter river flows by dams means that they no longer provide the cue for the smallest fish to begin their migration to the ocean. The loss of wetlands in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta leaves little of the refuge habitat they need to grow along the way. Meanwhile later-migrating fish suffer from rising summer temperatures that reduce their survival even though they migrate at a larger size.

Fish that begin their migration in mid-spring are the ones that survive best and dominate adult salmon returns to rivers such as the Stanislaus. These results were cited in a study published this week in Global Change Biology. Flow alteration and habitat loss have in effect homogenized the survival opportunities of salmon in this highly managed river system, researchers wrote.

That diminishes what is called the “portfolio effect,” where a diversity of salmon migration strategies help the fish cope with changing environmental conditions. This is similar to how diversified investments help buffer your financial portfolio against jolts in the stock market. Chinook salmon in California evolved diverse migration timing to handle the wide variation in climate, ocean, and river conditions in the Central Valley region. This is also important as climate change and rapidly changing, “whiplash weather” patterns further alter the picture.

“You never know what’s going to be a winning strategy in the future,” said Anna Sturrock of the University of California, Davis, and lead author of the research that also included scientists from several other agencies and universities. “Keeping options on the table is the best strategy, but that is not what we see happening.”

The research also found that the lower flows released from dams tend to reduce fish production. This is likely due to reduced access to floodplain habitats and lower food production in rivers.

Read more at https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2019-12/nfwc-sld121219.php