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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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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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$9.7 million in federal funds arrives for long-awaited Petaluma River dredging

Yousef Baig, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The Petaluma River, a tidal waterway that has seen boat traffic decline as silt piled up, will be dredged this year for the first time since 2003, rejuvenating a natural resource that for generations was the lifeblood of the community.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will be allocating roughly $9.7 million this year to pay for the project, U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, announced Monday. An additional $1.3 million was set aside for preliminary work to eventually dredge the San Rafael Canal.

The Army Corps is supposed to maintain the 18-mile river every four years but has fallen way behind on that commitment.

“I’m just very happy for the people of Petaluma,” Huffman, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Commitee, said in an interview. “They’ve waited a long time.”

With the money now in place, the dredging work could begin as early as June 1 depending on the migration of protected species like steelhead trout that naturally spawn in the watershed, said Jason Beatty, director of Petaluma Public Works and Utilities.

The city council last month approved nearly $2 million for an emergency dredge of the river turning basin and Petaluma Marina in case the Army Corps again passed on doing the work. With the project now covered, the city will use that money on the marina, where the number of vessels leasing space is now less than 40% of capacity, or about half the Bay Area average, Beatty said.

Members of the local boating community were elated by Monday’s news. Leland Fishman, commodore of the Petaluma Yacht Club, said the project could start a “rebirth of our river.”

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/10693943-181/97-million-in-federal-funds

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Will overhauling Scott Dam save native fish?

Alastair Bland, THE BOHEMIAN

Salmon three feet long seem to clog the water as the chrome-colored fish, fresh from the ocean, begin their journey upriver toward the high-elevation gravel riffles where they were born. Here, in the remotest tendrils of the watershed, they will lay and fertilize the eggs that ensure the next generation of salmon.

At least that’s how it once was early each autumn on the Eel River. But nature’s security system for fish survival is only as good as the health of a river. In the case of the Eel, a local power company built a dam on the Eel’s main fork in 1920. As a result, Chinook salmon lost access to about 100 miles of spawning habitat.

Steelhead, which swam farther upstream into smaller tributaries, suffered even greater impacts. Intensive in-river commercial fishing, water diversions, logging and other land degradation took their toll, too. Today, annual salmon runs in Eel River that once may have totaled a million or so adults consist of a few thousand. Lamprey eels, too, have dwindled.

Now, there is serious talk of removing Scott Dam, owned by PG&E since 1930.

For fishery proponents, such a river makeover is the optimal way to revive the Eel’s salmon runs.

“We want to see volitional passage, both ways,” says Curtis Knight, executive director of the conservation group California Trout.

Volitional, in this context, means the salmon are able to make their historic migration on their own—downstream as newly born juveniles and, later, upstream as sexually mature adults—all without the assistance of human hands.

“We think dam removal is one possibility here,” Knight says.

California Trout is one of several local groups and agencies now formally considering taking over the operation of Scott Dam from PG&E. As a hydroelectric facility, Scott Dam is not very productive, and with PG&E’s operating license scheduled to expire in 2022, the utility giant recently stepped away from the project. PG&E even briefly put the Potter Valley Project up for auction, though the offer attracted no takers.

Read more at https://www.bohemian.com/northbay/saving-salmon/Content?oid=9360901

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Op-Ed: Preserve nature for future generations

Charlie Schneider & Eric Leland, Trout Unlimited, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Northern California offers some of the best trout fishing in the world. Why? Because California’s diverse climate, geography and ecology provide some of the best habitat for fish and wildlife anywhere. Much of this habitat is found on public lands.

Sportsmen and women in California have free or low-cost access to millions of acres of land and water that has been conserved and managed for their natural, recreational and resource values. This isn’t the case in much of the world or even on the East Coast of the United States.

Within a three-hour drive of Sonoma County, one can fish for steelhead on the Eel or Trinity rivers or for trophy trout in the upper Sacramento River or Putah Creek. All on public land.

But California’s public lands are under siege from a variety of threats. Exceptionally severe wildfire, sustained drought, a warming climate and ill-advised political gambits grounded more in ideology than science are primary ingredients in the witches’ brew of influences that are drying up, burning up, using up or otherwise degrading or eliminating habitat in this state.

Trout Unlimited is committed to tackling the challenge of conserving our public lands in the face of these threats and keeping alive the unique sporting legacy these lands and waters have made possible. It’s encouraging to see that some leaders in Congress are committed to this same goal.

Our representative in the House, Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, is one. We salute Huffman and Sen. Kamala Harris for their recent introduction of the Northwest California Wilderness, Recreation and Working Forests Act, which would better protect and restore lands and streams vital for water supply, salmon and steelhead and the growing outdoor recreation economy in this region.

This legislation would conserve the landscapes and waters that make this area so special through a combination of forest restoration, new river and upland habitat protection measures, wildfire prevention treatments, rehabilitation of illegal trespass marijuana grow sites and new trails and other infrastructure to promote and expand recreational use. The type of inclusive lawmaking that developed this legislation is laudable.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/opinion/9729411-181/close-to-home-preserve-nature

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Work to continue on second half of Dry Creek restoration

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Overlooking water that was swiftly running through a broad channel that was mostly a patch of thick brush and trees until last year, local and federal officials and others on Monday marked the halfway point in a 13-year, $81 million fish habitat restoration project along Dry Creek.

In the past seven years, Sonoma Water and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have completed about 3 of the 6 miles of streambed they intend to rehabilitate and enhance to give endangered salmonid species that call the creek home a better chance to survive.

“This is, I think, one of the gems of our region and really a highlight project,” Army Corps Brigadier General Kimberly Colloton told those assembled.

As they toasted the conclusion of the final phase in the first round of projects at the edge of a Ferrari-Carano vineyard in Healdsburg, the two key partners approved an agreement committing to continued work on the effort.

But they have little choice. A 2008 biological opinion issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service required the two agencies to restore 6 out of 14 miles of Dry Creek. The work had to be done if they were to continue operating the Warm Springs Dam at Lake Sonoma for flood control and water deliveries to 600,000 consumers throughout Sonoma and northern Marin counties.

The order came in response to findings that water releases made since completion of the dam in 1984 were often at too high a velocity for juvenile fish to rest or feed adequately. Moreover, such fast-moving water further scoured and straightened out the streambed, exacerbating the problem.

The work they’ve been doing since is designed to spread the creek out, creating side- and cross-channels and dead-ended alcoves that slow the water down to a stop. They’ve added giant root wads, boulders, tree stumps and other woody debris to create places for small fish to hide and rest, and put in willows and other plants on the banks for shade.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9516210-181/work-to-continue-on-second

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Friends of the Eel River ask state, feds to protect NW California summer steelhead

FRIENDS OF THE EEL RIVER

Friends of the Eel River submitted both federal ESA and CESA petitions to list Northern California Summer Steelhead as an Endangered Distinct Population Segment.

Both petitions are largely based on a combination of the extensive 2017 report by Moyle et al on the status of California salmonids, State of the Salmonids: Status of California’s Emblematic Fishes 2017, and two papers that have come out of Mike Miller’s UC Davis lab over the last couple of years.

Northern California summer steelhead are truly extraordinary fish. They include the largest adult steelhead in coastal rivers, the southernmost surviving summer steelhead, and fish (in the interior rivers like the Eel) capable of withstanding higher stream velocities and jumping higher than any other salmonid. As Moyle et al make clear, once you accept that summer steelhead are biologically and reproductively distinct from winter steelhead, the status of summer steelhead on the far North Coast is quite dire. There are probably fewer than 1000 adults spawning in all of the rivers they still inhabit, from Redwood Creek in the north to the Mattole in the south.

However, our primary strategic goal at FOER in seeking recognition and protection for summer steelhead was to advance the cause of cause of removing Scott Dam. The dam blocks 98% of potential habitat for the Upper mainstem Eel River population of summer steelhead that was apparently wiped out by dam construction. If a population of summer steelhead could be restored to the upper main Eel, it would be the longest summer steelhead run in the state. It would also hugely improve the conservation status of the overall summer steelhead population on the North Coast. Because we call O. mykiss steelhead when they run to the ocean, but rainbow trout when they stay in freshwater, there remains some possibility that surviving native rainbow trout above the Lake Pillsbury reservoir could still retain the key premature migration gene.

Source: https://eelriver.org/2018/11/27/protect-nw-california-summer-steelhead/

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Local habitat may be at risk

Hannah Beausang, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The Trump administration is seeking to alter key provisions of the Endangered Species Act, a 45-year-old federal law that has shaped growth in Sonoma County during repeated battles between builders attempting to develop land and environmentalists seeking to protect rare plants and animals.

Federal officials contend the changes to the act — which protects local species like the coho salmon and the California tiger salamander — will streamline and improve it. Local environmentalists have called them a “coordinated attack” on science that could push fragile species into extinction.

The act, passed in 1973 during the Nixon presidency with strong bipartisan support, protects critically imperiled species and their habitats. In Sonoma County, development conflicts have arisen over those species, sometimes requiring costly mitigation measures for projects to advance. But the law has also been a salvation for wildlife on the North Coast, like the gray whale, the bald eagle and osprey, said Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael.

A major change would eliminate language instructing officials to ignore economic impacts when determining how wildlife should be protected.

Other reforms include changing limits on the designation of critical habitat — areas with biological or physical features necessary for the conservation of a species. It also seeks to end to the automatic regulatory process that gives threatened plants and animals the same protection as those listed as endangered, and streamlines consultation between agencies when actions from the federal government could jeopardize a species.

Read more at http://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8551721-181/sonoma-county-awaits-clarity-on

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Water Agency will present river estuary plan May 31

Frank Robertson, SONOMA WEST TIMES & NEWS

The May 31 meeting at the Jenner Community Center on Highway 1 will include a Water Agency presentation on the Russian River Estuary Management Project and will provide information recapping the 2017 lagoon management season.

The Sonoma County Water Agency will host a meeting in Jenner next week to update the public on Russian River estuary management efforts to maintain a closed estuary during the summer months.

“Communities along the lower river have long been interested in the estuary management project,” said Fifth District Sonoma County Supervisor and Water Agency Director Lynda Hopkins in a media announcement of the meeting. “Each May to October, the Water Agency manages the estuary to improve steelhead and coho salmon habitat and minimize flood risk for riverside communities. Estuary management is a key part of the Russian River Biological Opinion. Our annual community meeting is a great opportunity to receive current information and ask questions.”

The biological opinion issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in September 2008 required the Water Agency to change the way the Russian River estuary is managed in the summer. The purpose of the Estuary Management Project is to enhance summer habitat for young steelhead while minimizing flood risk to Jenner properties near the estuary. NMFS biologists believe that maintaining a summertime freshwater lagoon can create a healthier nursery for young steelhead. In other California rivers, the formation of similar “perched” lagoons has improved steelhead habitat during the summer months.

Since the mid-1990s the Water Agency has artificially breached the sandbar at the Russian River mouth when it closes and increases water levels in the estuary, threatening low-lying properties. The biological opinion calls for managing the estuary as a summer lagoon with an outlet channel in place to enhance conditions for steelhead to grow and thrive, giving them a better chance to survive ocean conditions, while continuing to minimize flood risk.

Read more at: http://www.sonomawest.com/sonoma_west_times_and_news/news/water-agency-will-present-river-estuary-plan-may/article_54f6f7ea-5e11-11e8-9913-bbc538cabe8c.html

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Students work to protect environment

John Jackson, PETALUMA ARGUS-COURIER
The success of the United Anglers of Casa Grande High School program has created the program’s greatest challenge.
The United Anglers of Casa Grande is a nonprofit educational organization located on the Casa Grande High School campus. Members of the organization are students who learn about fisheries, especially salmon and steelhead, and promote environmental awareness and activism through hands-on habitat restoration. United Anglers students operate and maintain a state-of-the-art conservation fish hatchery on the campus.
Interest in the program has exploded in recent years from around 30 students to more than 100, and now includes participants from Petaluma High School as well as Casa Grande.
Since the United Anglers program is a nonprofit and must raise all its own funds, the challenge comes in raising enough money to support the increase in membership, particularly at a time when the recent fires and disasters in other parts of the country are vying for benevolent contributions.
“I’m torn,” said program director and teacher Dan Hubacker. “We depend on support from families and businesses, but at the same time how do you ask them for donations after so many people have been affected by the fires?”
But Hubacker also said he feels an obligation to honor those, like himself, who have benefited by the program by keeping it going.
Read more at: A popular program