RRWPC Scoping Comments Estuary Project

Sonoma County Water Agency

Attn: Jessica Martini-Lamb

404 Aviation Blvd.

Santa Rosa, CA 95403

Email: estuaryproject@esassoc.com

June 21, 2010

Russian River Watershed Protection Committee (RRWPC) Scoping comments on SCWA’s Notice of Preparation of a Draft EIR for the Russian River Estuary

Comments by Brenda Adelman


These comments are being filed on behalf of Russian River Watershed Protection Committee (RRWPC).  We are a nonprofit public benefit organization incorporated in the State of California since 1980.  Our supporters number approximately 1200 property and business owners, recreationists, and other concerned citizens in the lower river area from Healdsburg to Jenner.  We also have a great deal of support from many others who appreciate our advocacy on behalf of the Russian River.

RRWPC supporters and activists utilize the Russian River for recreation and/or tourism, for fishing, swimming, for artistic expression, spiritual well being, for exercise and personal health of ourselves, family, friends and pets, and for replenishment of health and energy needed to balance out the stresses of modern day life.  Due to its proximity to Bay Area urban centers, the beautiful and peaceful lower Russian River is easy to access and allows a natural refuge from everyday cares.  Many of our supporters own properties in the lower river for their summer enjoyment, but reside and work in the greater Bay Area and beyond. Because of all this, they have a great interest in this proposed project.

RRWPC supports all comments and concerns entered into the record by Elinor Twohy and Norma Jellison.  Those two people are extremely knowledgeable about the seals, birds, and the Coastal environment, and we strongly support their work and concerns.  In particular, the issues of the seals, the opening and closing of the mouth, and the incidence of migrating and other birds are extensively addressed by them and have our full support.

1. Concerns regarding scoping meeting process:

On May 19th, RRWPC attended a scoping meeting in the town of Jenner.  Approximately 100 people attended.  The first part of the program was an informational meeting on the Temporary Urgent Change Petition to the State Board for the Russian River recommending that flows be lowered this summer from 125 cfs to 70 cfs.

The second part of the meeting was intended as the scoping meeting for the Estuary Project.  It is important to mention that this was a highly aware, environmentally sophisticated crowd, a fact of which SCWA staff was aware.  It included a former Supervisor, the Manager of Sweetwater Water District, and many others who were known to SCWA as having long histories of addressing environmental concerns.    The people in attendance came with questions and concerns that they wanted to voice publicly.

SCWA began this segment of the meeting with a description of the planned project and also information about the Marine Mammal Act.  They had circulated cards and asked people to write down their questions.  But as they were making presentations, time was taken to respond to many questions about the specific project plans.  SCWA staff had planned to give presentations and then break up the group and have people circulate around to various stations that were set up to talk to different staff people about the project.  Yet the audience wanted to stay intact and hear each other’s questions and responses.

Representing RRWPC, I asked whether there was any recording being made of people’s comments (electrical or by hand notes), so the Agency could have a record of what was being said in order to more fully address issues raised in the Draft EIR.  I was told there was no recording taking place at the meeting, nor would there be any recording of questions at the individual stations.

EIRs covering joint projects with Federal Agencies must have one scoping session.  While there are no rules that I am aware of on how this should be conducted, nevertheless, the whole point of the process is early consultation to determine and perhaps address controversial issues.  We believe that the spirit of the intent was lost because of the lack of any recording of the proceedings.  In this technological age, it would have been so easy to do.  While cards were distributed for questions, there is a context in a meeting that does not occur on a card with a question on it.  This left citizens with the appearance that the Agency was merely going through the motions and not sincerely interested in addressing the concerns of the community.

Scope of project:

Geographical limit:

The Estuary Project takes place in the Russian River from the mouth to a little upstream of the town of Duncans Mills (Austin Creek), stated to be about six miles upstream of the Estuary (BO says 7 miles upstream).  Last October we took pictures of the river in Monte Rio the day before and the day after the mouth was open (October 5th and 6th).  This was part of a photo project we worked on all summer.  (Report attached to this document.)

The pictures indicate a profound impact on Monte Rio Beach when the mouth is open or closed, the water being at least a foot higher when closed and at least 200 extra feet of beach exposed when open.  Furthermore, there was a considerable amount of algae left on the beach when the mouth was opened, indicating amounts present in the water when mouth was closed.  (Monte Rio Beach is one of the worst impacted by algae with a great deal of Ludwigia as well.)  These seem to fit the narrative standards for nutrients in the Basin Plan and need to be addressed.  What is the fate of the algae during each of these circumstances?  How does it affect the fish and the Estuary?  What impact might this have on the availability of pathogens?  The study area should be expanded to include Monte Rio Beach.

The closing of the mouth slows the flow of water and turns the lower river into a lake?  To what extent will (and has) this “lake” become a sink for pollutants that bioaccumulate in the biota and sediments to create a harmful environment for people and fish?  In fact, we have concerns that the “dead zone” (anoxic zone) in the Estuary harbors many toxic pollutants.  Are/will any studies be done to determine the extent of pollution in the Estuary, whether it is being reintroduced into the water column, and whether it is contaminating the fish (Are there any fish samples being studied?)?  Also, to what extent does the anoxic bottom affect the macro invertebrate food sources of the fish?  Are there any other threatened or endangered species or species of concern in the Estuary?  How will they be affected by this project?  (We assume you will pay especial attention to the issue of the seals.)

Bifurcation of Estuary Project and “Low Flow” Changes to D1610:

We are concerned about the bifurcation of the Estuary Project EIR and changes to D1610 EIR.  In Section 15003 (h): Policies, it states that, “The lead agency must consider the whole of an action, not simply its constituent parts, when determining whether it will have a significant environmental effect.”

This project is based on requirements in the Biological Opinion, which is a legally binding document issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service.  Page 241 of the BO presents the Reasonable and Prudent Alternatives (RPA).  It states that, “All eight modifications and additional actions must be implemented as one RPA.”

Item 1 directs SCWA to petition the State Board to change minimum bypass flows in Decision 1610 (D1610), and also calls for SCWA to complete all necessary environmental documentation to promote changes to D1610 minimum flows as per Section X.A.1

Item 2 (page 242) includes the following:  “SCWA will collaborate with NMFS and modify their estuary water level management in order to reduce marine influence…..in the estuary during the summer and promote a higher water surface elevation in the estuary for purposes of enhancing the quality of rearing habitat for age 0+ and 1+ steelhead.”

Furthermore, the following statement appeared on page 231 of the BO:  “Proposed project operations will likely have significant effects on the PCE of estuarine critical habitat for each salmonid species because flow management at WSD and CVD will create high inflows to the estuary during the low flow season and the sandbar breaching activities at the mouth will significantly affect water quality in the lowermost segment of the river.”

In fact, the NOP (page 3) states that, “NMFS’ Russian River BO found that artificially elevated inflows to the Russian River Estuary during the low flow season (May through October) and historic artificial breaching practices have significant, adverse effects on the Russian River’s estuarine rearing habitat for juvenile salmonids, particularly steelhead….NMFS’ Russian River BO concludes that the combination of high inflows and breaching practices impact rearing habitat because they interfere with natural processes that would otherwise cause a freshwater lagoon to form behind the barrier beach.  According to NMFS, fresh or brackish water lagoons at the mouths of many streams in central and southern California often provide depths and water quality that are highly favorable to the survival of rearing salmon and steelhead.”

These statements appear to attest to the fact that there is a direct link between D1610 flow changes and the Estuary Project, thereby making it unacceptable to consider them in separate EIRs.

Natural flows and breaching the mouth:

In his article appearing in the June 3rd edition of the Sonoma County Gazette (attached), Dr. William Hearn, chief author of the Biological Opinion, repeatedly referred to “natural flows” that used to occur in the Russian River more than 100 years ago and prior to the building of three major dams. He goes on to make the case that juvenile Steelhead appear to thrive in fresh water lagoon conditions and would have a much higher rate of survival if low flow conditions could be maintained.

In our comments to SCWA and the State Board on the Petition to permanently change D1610, RRWPC submitted a document entitled:  “Review of the Flow Proposal in the Russian River Draft Biological Assessment” by Prunuske Chatham and scientific review members, Daniel Malmon, William Murphy, and Bill Trush, all Ph.D’s, September 24, 2004.   (Since we have already submitted the document to SCWA with our Comments on D1610 flows, we simply reference it now. It was attachment #12 in that packet.)

They ask the critical question (page 17): “How are the Russian River’s salmon and steelhead populations faring under the present D1610?”

Page 21 of the document complains, “Not only is natural flow missing from the stated objectives (of Biological Assessment), but an increase in salmon and steelhead populations is not a clear objective either.  Rather, an “improvement” of existing summer habitat and habitat protection under increased future water demand is the objective.  The Draft BA does not assess the contemporary status of salmon and steelhead populations in the Russian River Basin.  Are populations improving, still declining, or staying about the same under D1610?  Is the goal of “improving” habitat sufficient to stabilize declining  populations presently below historic numbers?  The Draft BA never provides a quantitative goal for habitat improvement.”

RRWPC believes that this critique also applies to the Biological Opinion and  comments made by Dr. William Hearn as to why the Estuary Project and the D1610 Petition are necessary.  This EIR should address these issues and verify the claims made to justify this project.  The relationship between flows, mouth closings, habitat resources, fish abundance and health, including reproductive health, all needs to be fully defined.

RRWPC replied to the Bill Hearn article (Sonoma County Gazette, June 3, 2010, page 1) earnHwith this about “natural” flows:

In order to promote the recovery of Coho and Steelhead, the article notes that federal officials recommend, “One of these steps {leading back to recovery} involves restoring a more natural flow regime for the Russian River, while being careful to not unduly impact water quality and other resources.”

The article refers to possible pre-dam river flows of 30 cubic feet per second (cfs), but is unclear about whether these flows occurred throughout the river system.  The article fails to assign impacts from all the changes in land use that has occurred in the last 100 years, nor how going back to original flows, would impact the entire system.  In fact, it is stated that Estuary rearing would help the survival of the species, but fail to mention that normal habitat in the tributaries has been decimated by legal and illegal water diversions, careless agricultural processes, timber harvesting, gravel mining, etc. Now they are left with fewer habitat options, and this scheme is an experiment and possibly a last ditch effort, to save species that may not have a chance otherwise.

Actually, when Dr. Hearn talks about going back to “natural flows”, he doesn’t explain that they are only recommending such flows for the lower river and not the entire system.  Flows north of Healdsburg will only be reduced to 125 cfs (which is our normal flow and with which we could probably be content).  By assigning a theoretical historical flow of 30 cfs and then appear generous by saying they will allow us three times that amount, is manipulative and condescending and certainly not at all scientific.

Furthermore, the article states that while normal low flow had been 125 cfs, ACTUAL flows commonly ran 120 to 180 cfs, therefore “low flow” should be 70 to 85 cfs.  No scientific data was provided anywhere demonstrating how the ideal of 70 cfs was arrived at.  In fact, at the June 9th meeting in Guerneville, Dr. Hearn kept moving the goal post by first saying that flows would actually be about 85 cfs, and then he said 90 cfs., and then 100-110 cfs.  Since the only formal change in the Petition is 70 cfs., there is no regulatory meaning to the other suggested flows.

The phrase, “not duly impact water quality” has not been defined and no specific regulatory standards are offered.  It merely states that the Regional Water Quality Control Board provided oversight on water quality monitoring.  Yet, nutrient monitoring conducted last year by SCWA incorporated excessive detection limits, which resulted in worthless data.  Temperature was extremely high, but no concern expressed even though some steelhead and Chinook may remain in the system in the summer time.  Our impression is that the Regional Board was involved in setting up the monitoring program and then afterwards actually paid little attention to the process.

Another aspect to this situation is the link between low flows and Estuary closure.  Our attachments submitted to SCWA with the Permanent Change Petition to D1610 comments included a chart of the mouth closures (#7).  In looking at the chart, it is clear that the trend in the last ten years or so has been for the mouth to remain open most of the time in July and August no matter what the flow.  I believe that there were few closures in 2009 between June and September, although summer flows averaged as low as 63 cfs in August.

For example, 2002 was a low flow year and the mouth was open most of the time until Oct. 1st, but for two very brief closures in May and June.  2003 was open through September.  2004 was open until October, but for three brief openings in April, May, July/August.  2005 was open all year until mid-September. 2006 was open all year until late October.  2007 was open all summer (May through September) until mid-October.  2008 was closed much of May, but had only two closures for about a week each during June through September.  These statistics seem to dispute the NOP claim that frequently the mouth closes in the summer time, at least in the last ten years.   We wonder if the barrier beach would be constructed if the first mouth opening comes in September?

In any case, Dr. Hearn’s comments seem to prove the argument that there is an indisputable symbiotic link between the Estuary Project and decreased flows.  Therefore, CEQA and NEPA documents on these two projects (Estuary and D1610) should be merged.

Flooding justifies need for low flows:

Another circumstance linking the Estuary Project to the D1610 revision is the estuary flooding which in turn triggers the need to artificially open the mouth when water levels exceed seven feet.  This flooding is directly related to Russian River flows and is the central reason for requiring SCWA to petition the State to change D1610 and reduce lower river flows by 45% (125 cfs. To 70 cfs).  To imply that summer flow levels in the lower river are too high and are harming the threatened fish is really misleading, since the true immediate concern is for the flooding of a limited number of properties.

A report has been prepared showing about 90 properties that may be subject to inundation at various levels.  Further study needs to be conducted because many of the properties listed only flood when water levels go over 10-12’; numerous properties are undeveloped or underdeveloped, and some are abandoned.  We suggest that more meaningful research be done sooner rather than later, so we can see if the flow problem can be resolved by simply lifting a few structures out of the flood plain, rather than subjecting a whole river to minimal flows and potentially significant water quality problems.  (Dr. Hearn has admitted that flows might be able to remain at 125 cfs if the flood issue could be addressed.)

What is the role of ocean conditions in the Estuary Project?

In response to a question about the Coho Broodstock Program, we recently learned that no Coho returned last year in spite of a great deal of tributary work to improve conditions.  The explanation from a key Fish and Game official was that poor ocean conditions probably accounted for the disappointing results.  Could these conditions include acidification?  Could they include other water quality problems?  Will water quality problems in the ocean be addressed as part of this project?

Ocean conditions also help govern when the mouth opens and closes.  Since we noted a possible trend in the mouth remaining open in summer under numerous flow conditions, one would think that conditions may be different in the ocean to explain this.  What studies will be conducted to better understand the ocean’s role in the opening and closing of the mouth?

Also, there has been a lot mentioned in the media the last several years about global warming and rising sea levels.  What role could this be playing in the long term management of this project?

RRWPC incorporates by reference our entire packet of comments (25 pages) and 32 attachments concerning the Petition for the Permanent Change to D1610 submitted to the State and SCWA on May 13, 2010.


Photographic Report on Water Quality Conditions in Russian River

“Why Change Summer Flows in the Russian River” by Dr William Hearn, iSonoma County Gazette, June 3, 2010