Stephen Nett, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Rivers are vital. Like life-giving arteries, they deliver water for drinking and irrigation and fertile soil for vineyards and farms. They support watersheds teeming with life.
But humans are hard on rivers. We crowd their banks, dump waste in them and take out water, fish and other resources. In the process, waterways often end up reduced to narrow, dirty channels, shadows of their former selves.
When that happens, who speaks for the river?
For our longest local river, that voice has often been the nonprofit Russian Riverkeeper. The Healdsburg-based organization has spent decades working to protect, celebrate and restore the Russian River, from its headwaters above Ukiah to its final plunge into the Pacific at Jenner, 110 miles below.
On a recent winter day, Don McEnhill stopped his mud-spattered pickup on a narrow dirt levee high above the river. The spot is at an old mining site, the Hanson gravel pits near Windsor. With staff and a hydrological engineer, Riverkeeper’s chief executive was laying 80 feet of cable through dense brush down a steep bank to set up a water measurement sensor.
Below him was a chain of four wide lakes, the largest as big as a football stadium. The lakes, McEnhill explained, aren’t what they appear to be. They’re actually 30- to 40-foot-deep holes, left when the river gravel deposits were dug out and hauled away.
For a century and a half, gravel has been mined up and down the river and shipped south, to build much of the Bay Area. It’s even in the base of the Golden Gate bridge towers.
The old gravel pits are now filled with water and sediments, including toxic mercury from native ore upstream and runoff nutrients like phosphorus. The Russian River watershed once had dozens of mercury mines, McEnhill said.
Riverkeeper has been working for more than a decade to restore the Hanson property, which is just downriver from the giant wellheads that supply water to Windsor. Tall levees and barriers built to keep the river out of the aging pits are badly eroding, and in some places have been breached altogether.