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Russian Riverkeeper works to protect, restore Russian River

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.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/specialsections/sonomagives/10591318-181/russian-riverkeeper-works-to-protect

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Up to 96,000 gallons of wine spills at Rodney Strong Vineyards, most leaks into Russian River

Yousef Baig & Chantelle Lee, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The Russian River flowed with a cherry red tint Wednesday after tens of thousands of gallons of fresh cabernet sauvignon wine poured into the largest tributary in Sonoma County.

The wine — enough to fill more than 500,000 bottles — spilled from a Rodney Strong Vineyards’ storage tank at the Healdsburg winery, made its way into Reiman Creek running through the property and drained into the river.

It’s likely the biggest wine spill in county history, but certainly in the past 20 years, said Don McEnhill, executive director of nonprofit Russian Riverkeeper, noting he couldn’t recall gallons of this magnitude reaching the river.

A roughly two-foot oval door near the bottom of a 100,000-gallon Rodney Strong blending tank somehow popped open about 1:30 p.m. Wednesday and spilled from 46,000 to 96,000 gallons of wine, officials with the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services said Thursday.

Local and state water quality and fish and wildlife officials are investigating to determine any negative effects to the river ecosystem and whether the winery violated water quality rules. Investigators with the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board and California Department of Fish and Wildlife were on-site Thursday to determine the extent of environmental damage.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/10622264-181/pd-default-story-headline-xy?ref=moststory

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Clean storm drains seen as key to safeguarding Russian River

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Most people pass by storm drains day in and day out, giving little thought to them as conduits to local waterways — and ultimately, the Russian River in much of Sonoma County.

An alliance of local cities, special districts and the county wants to change that.

The coalition has launched a regional campaign to raise public awareness about the link between surface streets and local creeks in hopes people will think again about allowing litter, pet waste and other pollutants to escape down the drain and into the Russian River watershed, home to salmon and steelhead trout and a wide range other aquatic and terrestrial wildlife.

The $60,000 Streets to Creek campaign is intended to promote the fact that storm drains are basically extensions of creeks and streams. Anything left on or in the street — dripped motor oil, pesticide residue, discarded trash or cigarette butts — is basically left to be washed into the river.

“There is surprisingly little awareness about where storm drains actually flow to,” said Andy Rodgers, executive director of the Russian River Watershed Association, a stewardship group formed in 2003 by Sonoma and Mendocino counties, eight cities and the Sonoma County Water Agency. “There’s a number of folks who have the impression that all water goes to the wastewater treatment plants. Other people don’t really think about where it goes.”

Case in point: On Aug. 10, three people living in a motorhome were caught by a neighbor emptying a 50-gallon tank of raw sewage into a storm drain in Santa Rosa’s Junior College neighborhood.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9934996-181/russian-river-watershed-protection-campaign

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In bid to clean Russian River, water regulators adopt strict plan for Sonoma County septic systems

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

North Coast water quality regulators have signed off on a sweeping new plan that aims to curb the threat of human waste entering the Russian River by phasing out failing and substandard septic systems, viewed for decades as a prime source of pollution in the sprawling watershed.

Years in the making, the regulations affect a vast swath of Sonoma County — properties without sewer service from Cloverdale to Cotati and from Santa Rosa to Jenner. For the first time, affected landowners will be subject to compulsory inspections and mandatory repair or replacement of septic systems found to be faulty or outdated, at an estimated cost of up to $114 million, according to county officials.

The new rules take effect next year and will apply to an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 parcels without sewer service. Once the rules kick in, landowners will have 15 years to comply.

he highest concentration of affected property owners exist in the river’s lower reaches, where contamination from fecal bacteria has long been an open issue, but where officials worry that poorer communities will face the heaviest burden complying with the measures. Upgrades to an individual septic system can cost tens of thousands of dollars, and no pot of money currently exists to help defray landowner costs.

Local representatives, while not standing in the way of the measures, said outside financial support for the overhaul will be needed. North Coast water quality officials pledged to work with Sonoma County to pursue state, federal and private funding to bolster the cleanup effort.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9903962-181/in-bid-to-clean-russian

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Polluted gravel pit breached in Russian River flood

Riverkeeper, RUSSIANRIVERKEEPER.ORG

Our worst fears were realized in the Feb 28th flood event. The largest gravel pit mine, Syar’s Basalt Pit, had a complete levee failure on a section that had failed in previous floods. The image at left shows the breach in center of picture, with river on the left and Syar Basalt Pit on right. Over 30 years of mining waste containing extremely high levels of toxic metals as well as Healdsburg’s treated wastewater discharges are now connected to our river – our drinking water supply.

Syar’s own testing in 2006 showed the mining waste contained mercury, iron and aluminum at 200-800% of safe levels and phosphorous at nearly 500 times higher than levels that can trigger toxic algae. Those pollutants are all conservative – meaning they are still present, do not degrade over time and pose a threat to the river’s health and our health.

When we filed lawsuits against the County in the 80’s and 90’s to stop the gravel mining, one of our biggest reasons was the fear of the gravel pits being captured by the river in floods. Sadly our predictions were correct, again. This occurred during the El Nino events in the late 90’s which resulted in a Clean Water Act lawsuit by Friends of the Russian River, RRK’s predecessor.

As of this date, three months after the flood, we’re still waiting for action plans to protect the river this summer from Healdsburg’s wastewater and the mining waste – both have very high levels of nutrients, mainly phosphorous, that could trigger toxic algae blooms. We’re also very concerned that in six months it’ll be raining again and if we do not take action we will see major erosion of downstream properties.

At this time, Permit Sonoma has convened two meetings with resource protection agencies and are developing a tentative plan. Permit Sonoma plans to hold a public meeting to collect comments on concerns regarding this issue and give you an opportunity to voice your opinion on how the County should respond to this major threat to the River’s health. We’ll keep you posted when the public meetings are scheduled, stay tuned!

Source: https://russianriverkeeper.org/2019/06/05/polluted-gravel-pit-breached-during-flood/

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Sonoma County considering taking over Eel River water-power project

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Sonoma County supervisors agreed Tuesday to study the possibility of applying for a license to operate a remote Mendocino County hydropower project, marking the first move to maintain a long-standing water transfer deemed critical to residents and ranchers in both counties.

A coalition of five Mendocino County agencies and California Trout, a 50-year-old environmental nonprofit, are collaborating with Sonoma County’s water agency in the consideration of taking over the federal license for the Potter Valley Project, which delivers 20 billion gallons of water a year from the Eel River into the Russian River basin.

Each of the three partners is putting $100,000 into the study, an amount dwarfed by the potential cost of establishing free passage for the Eel River’s protected salmon and steelhead — likely a requisite step to extend the project’s life.

PG&E, the state’s largest utility now in bankruptcy, surrendered the project in January, upending the license renewal process, and no entity has responded to a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) call for a new operator.

The utility, which had owned the project since 1930, said it was no longer economical to operate a plant that generated less than 1 percent of its power.

But the water flowing through the powerhouse is virtually invaluable to the towns and ranches along the upper Russian River from Potter Valley to Healdsburg and is a critical source for Sonoma Water, which delivers water to 600,000 Sonoma and Marin county customers.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9598819-181/sonoma-county-supervisors-eye-future

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CalTrout wants old Scott Dam on Eel River removed to help salmon and steelhead

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

A state environmental group is calling for the removal of an old dam on the Eel River, contending it threatens the future of protected salmon and steelhead while acknowledging it is a key part of the North Bay’s water supply.

Scott Dam, a 138-foot concrete dam erected in 1922, is one of five aging dams California Trout asserts are “ripe for removal” to benefit their natural surroundings and communities.

The nearly 50-year-old nonprofit known as CalTrout said in its report, “Top 5 California Dams Out,” the Eel River represents “perhaps the greatest opportunity in California to restore a watershed to its former abundance of wild salmonids.”

Scott Dam, located in Lake County’s portion of the Mendocino National Forest, has been a longstanding target of other groups, including Friends of the Eel River, who want steelhead, coho and chinook salmon to swim freely within the 288 miles of habitat in the Eel watershed blocked by the dam.

The environmentalists see a “unique opportunity” to achieve their goal, as California’s largest utility PG&E, which has owned the dam as part of a small hydropower project since 1930, has filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy and abandoned plans to sell or seek relicensing of the project that diverts 20 billion gallons of water a year from the Eel to the Russian River at Potter Valley.

Eel River interests have considered the diversion a form of theft, while the water is critical to towns and ranches on the upper Russian River from Potter Valley to Healdsburg and part of the water supply for 600,000 residents in Sonoma and Marin counties.

How the future of the Potter Valley Project will play out over the next 18 months to two years is unclear, but it appears likely to result in either decommissioning or relicensing of the project, which includes a small powerhouse and two Eel River dams.

The bottom line is either PG&E or a new owner of the project may face a choice between paying more than $90 million for a fish ladder at Scott Dam or about $70 million to remove it.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9312399-181/state-environmental-group-wants-old

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Santa Rosa proclaims flood emergency after 250 million gallons of treated sewage released into streams

Will Schmitt, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Santa Rosa officials said Tuesday that managers at the city’s wastewater plant have been forced to release at least 250 million gallons of treated sewage into two creeks and the nearby Laguna de Santa Rosa amid record inflow to the facility that began in last week’s storm.

The three-day deluge pushed more than five times the normal flow of wastewater and runoff into the city’s Laguna de Santa Rosa plant, City Manager Sean McGlynn told the City Council on Tuesday. It was the highest inflow ever recorded at the site, according to the city.

To avoid overwhelming the Llano Road facility, managers began last Wednesday releasing fully treated sewage into Santa Rosa and Colgan creeks and the rain-swollen Laguna, which overtook city blocks on the eastern edge of Sebastopol, including the upscale Barlow shopping and business district.

The emergency release is ongoing, city officials said Tuesday. All three waterways drain into the Russian River.

McGlynn’s report came as the City Council affirmed a local emergency declaration he made last week at the end of the storm. The move is meant to ensure the city has both the flexibility and legal protection to alter operations at its wastewater plant, where flows have abated but remain higher than normal.

Partially treated waste also was diverted last week into storage basins, with plans now underway to fully treat that sewage. That diversion took place from late Tuesday to Thursday afternoon and has not impacted nearby waterways, according to the city.

The plant has enough remaining storage space to handle the extra volume from this week’s rain, Santa Rosa Water officials said. They have yet to discover any damage at the plant stemming from the past storm, which dumped a one-day record of 5.66 inches of rain on Santa Rosa.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9353682-181/santa-rosa-city-council-proclaims

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Local environmentalist wins recognition from North Coast Water Board

Carol Benfell, SONOMA COUNTY GAZETTE

In 1978, Brenda Adelman was a newcomer to the Guerneville area, a school teacher, housewife and jewelry maker who operated a crafts business out of her Rio Nido home.

Forty years later, she is recognized by The Press Democrat as one of the 50 most influential people on the North Coast and has received dozens of awards from government agencies and environmental groups for her tireless efforts to protect the Russian River.

On February 20, the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, the state water regulator, honored her with a Water Quality Stewardship Award for her advocacy and effectiveness in protecting the Russian River watershed.

The award notes her influence in the city of Santa Rosa’s historic decision to expand wastewater recycling to the Geysers, and her continuing efforts to increase awareness of the role of endocrine disrupting chemicals on human health and aquatic life.

“Brenda has been an active participant and advocate for water quality in the Russian River for years,” said Josh Curtin, the board’s assistant executive officer. “She’s provided extensive input to our Board, and we’ve have made changes because of the things she’s brought up. We really appreciate Brenda.”

It all started, Adelman said, in 1979 when she joined a group of fellow townspeople concerned about the skyrocketing cost of a county proposal to build a wastewater treatment plant in Guerneville.

Then in 1985, amidst heavy rainfall, one million gallons of raw sewage spilled from Santa Rosa’s overflowing treatment ponds into the Laguna de Santa Rosa, which empties into the Russian River. That was followed by the city’s intentional, but illegal four-day release of 750 million gallons of treated wastewater.

Downstream, River communities were traumatized. The River might be Santa Rosa’s sewer pipe, but it was the source of their drinking water.

“There was a lot of fear. People were afraid of the drinking water supply, even the emergency drinking water that Santa Rosa provided,” Adelman said. “Everyone was outraged.”

Santa Rosa was penalized for the spill and ordered by the state to find a weather-independent method of wastewater disposal. For 16 years, the city explored a series of projects in various parts of the county that also called for increasing discharge in the Russian River.

Adelman and her group, the Russian River Water Protection Committee, fought on. They were not the only group opposing the discharges, but they were the most persistent. She read and researched her way through four multi-volume environmental impact reports with thousands of pages of scientific data and spent hundreds of hours attending and speaking at meetings.

She launched letter-writing campaigns, presented papers, galvanized community groups, published articles, developed a 1,000-person mailing list, and gave interviews, gradually developing an extensive knowledge of water quality that won the respect of the professionals.

Finally, in 2002, Santa Rosa chose to send most of its wastewater to the Geysers to recharge the dwindling steam fields that produce geothermal power. City and county officials credited Adelman for stalling the city long enough that a more environmentally sound project could be found.

She doesn’t get paid. She survives on a modest income. What kept her going?

“Outrage,” Adelman said. “Outrage. I was always just outraged.”

She continues to speak out on River issues. She’s currently battling a federal proposal to limit dam releases and significantly lower River flows in summer. The proposal is aimed at protecting endangered salmon species, but Adelman argues it will instead increase the growth of oxygen-killing algae and raise bacterial levels.

She’s also working to raise regulators’ understanding of endocrine disrupters, and sponsored a daylong seminar on the issue, bringing together experts from around the country. Endocrine disrupters are chemicals often found in wastewater that can cause birth defects, cancer and developmental issues in humans and fish.

As a result, the Regional Water Quality Board is conducting a special study to monitor the chemicals in the Russian River.

“Brenda is a Sonoma County treasure,” said Richard Retecki, a retired project analyst with the state Coastal Conservancy. “She’s persisted for decades, she’s been effective, and she’s made a difference. The county would be a lot worse off if she hadn’t done this work for all of us.”

Source: https://www.sonomacountygazette.com/sonoma-county-news/brenda-adelman-water-russian-river-advocat-wins-recognition-from-water-board

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Flooding in Sonoma County causes estimated $155 million in damage

Nashelly Chavez, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The powerful storm that swept over Sonoma County last week caused an estimated $155 million in damage to homes, businesses, roads and other public infrastructure, county officials announced Saturday.

The updated assessment came at the end of a week marked by the largest flood on the lower Russian River in nearly a quarter century. Guernville and other riverside communities took the heaviest blow, but flooding elsewhere — in Sebastopol, Healdsburg and Geyserville — led to widespread damage countywide, said Tennis Wick, director of Permit Sonoma, the county’s planning and building agency.

Approximately 1,900 homes were affected, with major damage reported at 1,760, according to the county.

Flooding impacted 578 commercial buildings and businesses, including restaurants, pubs, resorts, stores and theaters.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9342974-181/flooding-causes-estimated-155-million?sba=AAS