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Uncharted waters for the Russian River this summer

Russian Riverkeeper, RUSSIANRIVERKEEPER.ORG

This past Sunday, while out on the River, we observed the clearest waters we can remember seeing in over 50 years. With 25+ feet of visibility, we could see the bottom of some of the deepest pools—from Geyserville to Healdsburg at Diggers Bend and Warnecke Ranch—it was incredible! Normally, we would be lucky to have 4-5 ft of visibility.

Sadly, this is not going to last for long. The incredible clarity right now is due to an increased amount of groundwater seepage which brings cold, clean water into the river system. These cold, clean waters are in stark contrast to Lake Mendocino releases or tributary flows that often have more sediment and higher temperatures this time of year. Unfortunately, as temperatures go up and water use increases for vineyards and lawns, this moment of beautiful clarity will soon end.

As we paddled downriver we saw many lower Alexander Valley vineyard pumps already on, signaling the start of the irrigation season. This means that we will soon be losing about 50% of flow between Ukiah and Healdsburg to irrigation. Two weeks ago we observed a semi-truck unloading pallets of new sod in Healdsburg so that even more water-sucking lawns could be planted. As a city that already uses more water per person than all others in the watershed, this seems counterintuitive to the current drought situation we find ourselves in. Seems like not much has changed as far as water-use patterns go.
Continue reading “Uncharted waters for the Russian River this summer”

Posted on Categories Forests, Land UseTags , ,

224-acre logging plan above Russian River near Guerneville awaiting approval

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

A plan to log 224 acres of steep land above the Russian River, on the outskirts of Guerneville and Monte Rio, is expected to win approval in the coming days despite heavy opposition from residents and activists alarmed by the project’s proximity to rural communities and the natural landscape that draws tourists there.

Representatives for the Roger Burch family, which owns the property and the Redwood Empire Sawmill in Cloverdale — where logs from the Silver Estates timber harvest would be milled — said the forest is overstocked and badly in need of thinning to promote the growth of larger trees and reduce excess fuels.

But opponents say they remain unsatisfied by the planning process and have myriad outstanding concerns — everything from effects on wildlife habitat to soil stability, wildfire risks and visual impacts.

They say the plan is governed by “outdated” forest practice rules that fail to account for climate change and heightened wildfire risks where wildland abuts or mixes with settled areas.

“I still feel like we’re living with the legacy of Stumptown, and we still have to make amends,” said John Dunlap, a leader of the local Guerneville Forest Coalition. Stumptown was the nickname acquired by the community during the logging boom at the turn of the 20th century, when timber from the area helped rebuild San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fires. “It’s sort of like we’re not really listening to what the environment is telling us.”

Read more at: https://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/news/224-acre-logging-plan-above-russian-river-near-guerneville-awaiting-approva/?sba=AAS

Posted on Categories Land Use, WaterTags , , , ,

Russian River, backed up at coastal mouth, threatens flooding in Jenner

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

High waves and heavy surf that have battered the Sonoma Coast for days and sealed the Russian River mouth with a great mound of sand have raised the water high enough to threaten flooding in the town of Jenner over the next few days.

Water already surrounded the Jenner Visitor Center at the river’s edge by Thursday afternoon, rising over the back deck and flooding into the parking lot adjacent to the post office and Highway 1. Farther inland, the river’s surface swelled to a height of 10 feet at the Highway 1 bridge.

But because of continued wave action on the beach, it has not been safe for Sonoma Water, the county water agency, to send out a heavy equipment operator to breach the beach dam by digging a channel through from the river estuary to the ocean. And though there has been some recent rain, the river flow remains low enough that it’s not exerting sufficient pressure to break through the sand on its own.

That combination of factors has allowed the mouth to close a “crazy” number of times this winter, said Suki Waters, who grew up in the area and owns Water Treks EcoTours in town, running boat rentals and guided kayak tours in the estuary.

“There’s not enough pressure in the river, not enough current to keep the river open during these high waves, high sand-pushing events,” she said.

At various times, the waves have been high enough to wash over the sand berm, adding even more water to the estuary, Sonoma Water said.

This is the fifth time in two months that the mouth has closed, in large part due to a dearth of rainfall that this year is sitting at around 30% of normal in most of the North Bay and wider Bay Area, National Weather Service meteorologist Matt Mehle said. Santa Rosa, as of Thursday, had received 5.3 inches of rain since Oct. 1, compared to 15.5 inches in an average year, Mehle said.

The outlook is for dryer than normal weather through the end of the month, as well, Mehle said, and another high-surf advisory taking effect at 6 a.m. Friday, with waves up to 25 feet in the most exposed coastal areas.

Sonoma Water, the region’s drinking water supplier, and charged with managing conditions at the river mouth, normally would consider mechanical breaching of the sandbar once the water reaches between 7 and 9 feet high, said Barry Dugan, a community and government affairs specialist. It already has done so on three occasions over the past two months — Nov. 19, Dec. 10 and Dec. 30. One other time this winter, the mouth closed but the river breached on its own Dec. 24.

At more than 10 feet, the river “is pretty high,” said Waters, whose boats were moored near the visitor center, formerly the town’s boat house, and being monitored.

“Normally, it either breaks or, if the county can open the river mouth, it usually happens before it gets to 10 feet,” Waters said. “This is a rare event.”

The river usually runs at a rate of several thousand cubic feet per second at this point in the season, but even with the rainfall early this week, it flowed only at 459 cfs by 4 p.m. Thursday at the Hacienda Bridge in Forestville.

That’s at least high enough to allow sport fishing once again in the main stem, where between Oct. 1 and April 30 angling is shut down at 300 cfs under a 2015 regulation designed to reduce stress for imperiled fish species already challenged by drought.

Though the river rose to 300 cfs briefly Dec. 18 and again between Dec. 26-28, the river was not opened until Wednesday, when it peaked at 559 cfs before beginning to drop.

“Last year, it opened right before Thanksgiving. The year before that it opened in late October, closed, and then opened again in mid-November,” said Scott Heemstra, a longtime fishing guide and manager at King’s Sport & Tackle in Guerneville. “So this is pretty late for opening.”

With the river mouth closed, only smaller steelhead trout that came in early were available to be caught, however, and once the mouth is opened, the river flow could be too low to fish.

Whether the water in Jenner rises high enough in the meantime to mimic December 2015, when people were canoeing and kayaking through riverside parking lots, remains to be seen.

Dugan said the visitor center floods when the water reaches around 10.3 feet and the southbound lane of Highway 1 at 12.3 feet.

He said the CHP, Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and public safety and park agencies had been notified of the situation.

But he said it remained difficult to predict what might happen.

“All I can say with any certainty is there continues to be the potential for localized flooding,” Dugan said.

Source: https://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/news/russian-river-backed-up-at-coastal-mouth-threatens-flooding-in-jenner/

Posted on Categories Land Use, Local OrganizationsTags , ,

Lower Russian River to get first big regional park near Monte Rio

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Sonoma County has acquired 515 acres of forest on the southern edge of Monte Rio that will be protected and opened to the public as the first major regional park in the lower Russian River area, offering a new outdoor destination for residents and the region’s steady stream of visitors.

The property, long eyed by park planners as a potential gem in the growing collection of preserved open space in west county, contains towering stands of mixed redwood and Douglas fir forest, as well as more than a mile of Dutch Bill Creek, which feeds into the Russian River.

In addition, its location offers options for future links to the Sonoma Coast State Beach and an envisioned 5½-mile “parkway” south through the redwoods between Monte Rio and Occidental.

“There are so many things about this site that are incredible,” said Misti Arias, acquisitions manager for the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, which helped fund the $3.9 million purchase.

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who championed the deal from its earliest stages, touted the economic benefits of expanded outdoor opportunities, imagining the new park as a recreational hub that spurs and sustains commerce and community in nearby Monte Rio, which struggles with some of the highest unemployment rates countywide.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/news/former-sonoma-county-parks-director-to-serve-as-interim-chief-at-open-space/

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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

Posted on Categories Sustainable Living, Water, WildlifeTags , , , ,

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

Posted on Categories Land Use, Sustainable Living, WaterTags , , , , ,

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/

Posted on Categories Water, WildlifeTags , , , , , , ,

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