Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Even the record rainfall that dowsed the North Coast this winter, filling reservoirs and streams, will not be enough to head off a looming clash over the water that courses down two of the region’s largest rivers, the Russian and the Eel.
Together, they drain a swath of territory, including cities, forests and vineyards, that stretches from central Sonoma County to Fortuna, in Humboldt County — an area larger than Connecticut.
A key link between the two rivers, a small powerhouse more than 100 years old, is now the focal point in a fight over the water that flows down these rivers. It’s a standoff with many of the main players in western water wars — farmers, environmentalists, water districts serving urban customers and fishermen. And it raises many of the same questions: Who benefits and who loses from water taken for decades from one river — at over 20 billion gallons a year — and funneled into another river?
In this case, it is the Eel River that has been tapped, its water sent down a milelong tunnel through a mountain in Mendocino County, into a PG&E powerhouse and ultimately into a fork of Russian River, which flows down through Sonoma County.
Water drawn from the Eel River sustains Lake Mendocino, the main source of drinking water for residents along the Russian River from Redwood Valley down to Healdsburg.
Turning off that supply could devastate agriculture and diminish that primary water source for thousands of people, according to interests on one side of the tug-of-war.
The vast majority of the more 600,000 North Bay residents who depend on the Russian River for drinking water are unaware of the plumbing arrangement and the controversy that has long swirled around it and two related dams on the Eel River, where once-prolific runs of salmon and steelhead trout have dwindled amid various human impacts, water diversion among them.
But for the partisans — the water managers, environmentalists, public officials, ranchers and scientists — the dilemma of parsing out this water between competing interests, between people and fish, between town and country, is revving up again over the relicensing of the PG&E powerhouse, called the Pottery Valley Project.
“It’s a critical moment,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, the San Rafael Democrat whose North Coast district spans the adjacent watersheds.
Read more at: Fate of Russian and Eel River flows rests in big fight over small hydroelectric project | The Press Democrat
“There’s not a lot of information out there about how to protect habitat in watersheds,” Green said. “Many people don’t realize fast-flowing, unobstructed creeks are not how this area evolved.”
Walking along the shaded banks of Dutch Bill Creek outside Occidental, geomorphologist John Green and environmental scientist Derek Acomb are satisfied with the winter that just passed. A deluge of water swelled thirsty watersheds, and strong winds knocked down an untold number of trees throughout the Sonoma County.
“It’s been a good year for trees coming down,” said Acomb, with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “It’s all about context; it’s all about where you are.”
While falling trees are a threat to both life and property, they create healthy habitats for coho salmon and steelhead trout. As much as dams, logging, agricultural runoff and overfishing throughout the decades have contributed to the collapse of salmon and trout populations, clearing creeks and rivers of downed trees and upended roots has been a major driver, too, Acomb said.
With more than 90 percent of the county’s watershed in private hands, the onus is on landowners to protect riparian habitat on their property. Before an individual can alter downed trees, logs and other forest material in waterways on their property, they must first receive a free permit from Fish and Wildlife — unless there is an immediate threat to life and property. The Gold Ridge Resource Conservation District can also assist in the process, said Green, the lead scientist and program manager there..
There are times when property owners call Fish and Wildlife, afraid debris in a nearby stream might flood their property or their homes. While there are serious emergencies, he said, most trees don’t pose an immediate threat.
“When they call, they’re in a survival state-of-mind,” Acomb said. “Then the following day the water has subsided and they see they’re going to be OK.”
Until the late 1990s, flood protection was the primary focus when managing creeks, streams and rivers, not habitat protection, said Green, overlooking a creek flowing through Westminster Woods where he has devoted a decade of work. The faster the water flows, the more quickly it can drain water when the rivers hit flood levels.
But without the protection from pools created by debris shaping the creek beds and slowing down the flow of water, juvenile salmon and trout are vulnerable to predators like river otters, raccoons and blue herons, Green said. Pools created by fallen timber also provide a place for coho to wait out a long, dry Californian summer before they finally venture out to the ocean in the winter months, he continued.
“With a little less flood capacity you can have a huge increase in habitat,” Acomb said, standing on the mossy bank next to Green. While the two work for different agencies, they have partnered to restore habitat in west Sonoma County.
Read more at: Fallen trees in Sonoma County creeks add to salmon habitat | The Press Democrat
J.D. Morris, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Tucked away among rolling green hills off the road leading up to the River Rock Casino near Geyserville, a once-beleaguered creek is springing back to life.
Situated at the bottom of a slope ravaged by a landslide in the 1980s, part of the creek bed and its immediate surroundings were for years covered with asphalt and used for parking. Now, with recently planted shrubs and trees taking root, the area is a testament of what could be in store for the entire mile-and-a-half-long waterway running through the Dry Creek Rancheria and into the Russian River.
The Dry Creek Band of Pomo Indians has already begun restoring one segment of the creek and applied for about $3.5 million in state grant funding to extend its work to the rest of the unnamed tributary to the Russian River. The tribe hopes to make the creek more hospitable to steelhead trout, a threatened species, while improving the health of the Russian River watershed and fortifying the water supply.
“Of course it’s important for us to be good stewards of this land,” said David Delira, the tribe’s public works manager. “Our stumbling block has always been funding.”
The tribe’s creek restoration dovetails with another project, on Dry Creek, where the tribe has been involved with efforts led by the Sonoma County Water Agency to restore a six-mile stretch of fish habitat, a multimillion dollar bid to ease effects tied to dam development and other human-caused harm to Russian River salmon and steelhead.
Read more at: Dry Creek Rancheria seeks to restore Russian River tributary for fish, water supply | The Press Democrat
Wednesday, Cloverdale Veterans Hall, 205 W. First St. at 6:00pm.
Thursday, Guerneville Veterans Memorial Building, 16255 First St. at 6:00pm.
More information: scwa.ca.gov/fish-flow/
Written comments can be submitted until 5 p.m., Feb. 14, to email@example.com or to the Sonoma County Water Agency, Attn: Fish Flow DEIR, 404 Aviation Boulevard, Santa Rosa, 95403
People who want to give feedback about a plan to cut summertime flows in the Russian River and Dry Creek will have two opportunities to do so in person this week at public hearings.
The sessions, in Cloverdale on Wednesday and Guerneville on Thursday, are being hosted by the Sonoma County Water Agency, which is in the midst of environmental review for a series of proposed changes to water releases from Lakes Mendocino and Sonoma.
The proposals, if approved by state water regulators, would permanently drop stream flows during summer to improve habitat for imperiled juvenile coho salmon and steelhead trout.
But summer is also peak season for river recreation, raising fears about the impact on business and tourism, particularly among communities on the lower river, where seasonal flows would be cut by nearly half, even in wet weather years.
Many critics also believe reducing reservoir releases will contribute to the kind of warm, stagnant conditions that have produced toxic algae blooms in the Russian River and other water bodies around California during the past two summers. Low-flow conditions can also concentrate pollutants from runoff and other sources, reducing water quality.
Among those challenging the wisdom of the proposed changes is the Russian Riverkeeper advocacy and stewardship group, whose leaders contend that even cutting the river flow will not be enough to keep the river estuary closed for young salmon in summer, given ocean dynamics that shift the sand bar at the river’s mouth so often.
Read more at: Public hearings set for Russian River low-flow plan | The Press Democrat
Derek Moore, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A Sonoma County vintner has agreed to pay $579,700 to settle water code violations stemming from the release of muddy pond water into a Valley Ford creek that supports spawning fish, state officials announced Thursday.
Steve Kistler (Kistler Vineyards) became the focus of enforcement action after officials traced the April 2013 sediment discharge to Bodega Highway property the longtime vintner owns east of the historic Watson School.
Officials said Kistler directed an employee to pump water from a partially constructed pond into a second, smaller pond, which then overflowed, spilling an estimated 739,910 gallons of turbid water into a tributary of Salmon Creek.
The water appeared so milky that officials with the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board and other investigating agencies at first surmised that the source had to be a dairy, said Stormer Feiler, an environmental scientist with the water board’s North Coast region.
He said the environmental impacts may have lasted as long as six days and likely killed juvenile coho salmon and steelhead trout living in the creek.
Read more at: Sonoma County vintner Steve Kistler to pay more than $500,000 to settle creek pollution case | The Press Democrat
[The new viewing gallery] will host visits by about 3,000 school children a year, and the Water Agency will offer free tours of the Mirabel facility from 9 a.m. to noon Nov. 12 and Nov. 18. People can register for one of the tours at www.scwa.ca.gov/tours.
A massive concrete structure, built to withstand floods and earthquakes beside the Russian River near Forestville, is the latest step toward restoring the river’s beleaguered salmon and steelhead populations.
The 600,000 Sonoma and Marin county residents who get their drinking water from the river paid for most of the $12 million fish ladder, which includes both a video monitoring system so scientists can count the migrating fish and a viewing gallery that will give the public a glimpse as well.
Grant Davis, general manager of the Sonoma County Water Agency, which developed the facility, said it offered a unique, submarine vantage point in California to watch wild salmon make their way upstream.
“This is open-heart surgery that we accomplished in our river system,” he said.
At a formal ribbon-cutting attended by about 150 people Wednesday, state Sen. Mike McGuire hailed the fish ladder as “a legacy project.”
“The Russian River is who we are in Sonoma County,” he said, noting that the river’s once-abundant salmon and steelhead long fed the region’s Pomo Indian tribes.
Chuck Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, lauded the project as a pivotal one for salmon recovery in California.
Describing the annual migration of river-born fish to the ocean and back to their own spawning grounds, Bonham said, “What journey is more inspiring than that one?”
Read more at: New $12 million Russian River fish ladder offers glimpse of salmon recovery efforts | The Press Democrat
October 13, 2016, NOAA FISHERIES NOAA Recovery Plan for Chinook and Steelhead
Millions of wild salmon and steelhead once returned to California’s north and central coastal watersheds. Development over the last 100 years and the conversion of forestlands to urban and agricultural use led to the decline of these populations. From 1997 to 2000, California Coastal Chinook salmon, Northern California steelhead, and Central California Coast steelhead were listed under the federal Endangered Species Act as species threatened with extinction.
Today, NOAA Fisheries released its final plan to recover these species by addressing the threats they face and restoring the ecosystem on which they depend. The recovery plan strategically targets restoration efforts to the needs of salmon and steelhead throughout each of their life stages, from their time as juveniles in freshwater habitat, through their maturation in the ocean, and their return to streams to spawn. Using this framework, the plan seeks to improve estuarine and riparian habitat conditions, restore floodplains and stream channels, enhance stream flows and improve fish passage across 8 million acres of California’s north and central coast.
With science at its foundation, the plan provides for the biological needs of fish. A technical team of scientists, led by NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center, developed criteria that will ensure the species persists over the long-term. The criteria address such attributes as population size and reproductive success rates, as well as sufficient geographic distribution and genetic diversity. The idea is to target on-the-ground actions to the needs of fish throughout their life cycle to restore robust populations across the landscape.
Read more at: New multispecies plan provides roadmap to salmon and steelhead recovery :: NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region
Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Interested parties appear likely to get the extra time many have requested to review and comment on some 3,600 pages of study for a plan to permanently reduce summertime flows in the Russian River and Dry Creek to benefit imperiled fish species.
Sonoma County officials announced Friday they would discuss an extension at the Oct. 4 Board of Supervisors meeting and may schedule additional public hearings on the flow rate in lower and upper river communities.
The plan has raised concerns among some business representatives and river residents about the reduced flows’ effects on recreation and water quality.
Board Chairman Efren Carrillo said Friday he’s “highly confident” fellow supervisors will agree to additional time for public feedback.
“We still need formal action,” Carrillo cautioned. “I don’t want to be presumptuous.”
The notice came three days after a standing-room-only crowd appeared before the Board of Supervisors to address a six-volume draft environmental impact report that envisions significant changes for how Russian River flows are managed by the Sonoma County Water Agency.
Read more at: Sonoma County signals possible extension for comment on Russian River flow plan | The Press Democrat
Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Critics of a permanent plan to curtail summertime flows in the Russian River blasted Sonoma County supervisors Tuesday, with many saying the long-anticipated shift in water management would devastate lower river communities and economies dependent on recreation and tourism.
A string of speakers implored county officials to rethink their strategy or risk increased nuisance and toxic algae that could severely impact quality of life throughout the county. About 80 people attended the public hearing at the supervisors’ chambers, the only one planned as part of an environmental impact report scheduled for release later this year.
Others Tuesday night challenged the science behind the move, questioning the rationale of a 2008 federal opinion by the National Marine Fisheries Service that instructed the Sonoma County Water Agency to reduce artificially elevated summertime flows in the river and in Dry Creek as a way to improve habitat for threatened and endangered salmonid fish. At issue is a proposed overhaul of the agency’s management under which releases have been made from Lake Mendocino into the Russian River and from Lake Sonoma into Dry Creek, which joins the river near Healdsburg. County supervisors serve as the agency’s board of directors.
“Nothing good will come out of a low-flow proposal,” said Linda Burke, whose family has operated Burke’s Canoes in Forestville for two generations. “This is draconian. It’s unheard of. It’s sad, and it’s disgusting.”
The plan is informed by the 8-year-old federal decision that deemed existing operations a potential threat to the habitat and survival of struggling coho salmon, chinook salmon and steelhead trout, all of which are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Federal fishery experts say juvenile fish need low-velocity streams in order to thrive while feeding, resting and building up strength to go out to the ocean. It’s also believed reducing flows would encourage maintenance of a freshwater lagoon at the river mouth near Jenner, enhancing the survival of young steelhead trout.
Reserving a cold water pool in Lake Mendocino for release each fall also would benefit migrating chinook salmon adults as they come in from the ocean and head upstream to spawn, agency personnel said.
Read more at: Critics of proposed low-flows for Russian River blast supervisors | The Press Democrat
The Environmental Impact Report and related information are available online at scwa.ca.gov/fish-flow, and the comment period ends October 17.
A long-awaited report outlining plans to permanently reduce summertime flows in the Russian River and Dry Creek to benefit imperiled fish species was unveiled Friday, kicking off a public comment period that’s expected to feature ample disagreement and controversy.
The blueprint formalizes water releases that have already been made for years at Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma, the region’s two main reservoirs, which supply drinking water to more than 600,000 and maintain year-round river flows for people and fish.
The new, six-volume environmental impact report is meant to bring the region’s water management into official compliance with federal guidelines for the Russian River’s beleaguered salmon and steelhead trout species.
But it also would nearly halve minimum summertime flows in the lower river — even during the rainiest years — a policy that triggered questions and angst well before Friday about potential impacts on recreation, water quality and other aspects of the watershed’s health.
“Our community is concerned about the state of the fish habitat, but also concerned about any impacts making low flow permanent will have on our water quality, our tourism industry, and of course on the health of our residents and pets,” Monte Rio Community Alliance President Chuck Ramsey said. He alluded to the death of a dog, which last year ingested toxic algae during a trip down the lower river. Such algae can develop in still, warm and shallow water — conditions that can accompany low flows.
“There needs to be a balance that allows us to achieve the best outcomes possible,” Ramsey said.
Read more at: Russian River plan calls for lower summer flows to protect fish | The Press Democrat