Summary of Estuary DEIR Issues. 2-10-2011

River friends:

Here is a letter I wrote recently to sum up the issues.  If you haven’t written your letter yet, you can base a letter on this information if you like.  Please email your letters to: ESA at and also Jessica Martini-Lamb at Please ask them to respond that they received your comments.  The deadline for submission of comments is February 14, 2011, at 5 pm. The project description and DEIR can find on Sonoma County Water Agency’s (SCWA) website at:

The Biological Opinion (BO) can be accessed at the same website and you can skim pages 241 to 253 in reference to D1610 if you are ambitious.  Guerneville’s gauge is at Hacienda.  The minimum flow proposed for Hacienda, is from 125 cfs down to 70 cfs.  We are only concerned about lower river issue at this time.

Background Summary:

In mid-nineties Coho were listed as endangered by the State and “threatened” by National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and have since been listed as endangered.  Steelhead and Chinook were soon after listed as “threatened”.  Russian River used to be the fourth largest run of steelhead in California.

These listings triggered a consultation between ACOE, SCWA, and two other agencies, to address impacts on the fish of SCWA water delivery system and associated diversions.  As operators of the system during the summer, SCWA has taken the lead and has overseen the development of the EIR.  They first developed a Biological Assessment, which was submitted to NMFS around 2007. In September, 2008, the Biological Opinion (BO) was released and it directed SCWA to fulfill certain tasks including low flow and a closed estuary.

The Estuary project is really an adaptive management project and subject to trial and error.  While they are not sure how or if this project is going to work, our main concern is that they not make permanent flow changes until there is some level of certainty about this plan.  We don’t think they should separate the Estuary Project EIR from the D1610 flow change EIR.  There have already been two scoping processes on the D1610 EIR by both SCWA and the State.  RRWPC submitted extensive comments on both.

The Estuary project deals with 6-7 miles upstream of the Estuary to Duncans Mills, even though they admit that the river will back up to Vacation Beach, which is about one mile west of Guerneville and about seven miles further upstream from Duncans Mills. The summer bridge over the river (exact location of Vacation Beach) is visible on Google Earth and the Russian River County Sanitation District a little bit to the right on the south side of the river.

Issues:  Decision 1610 (D1610)

Decision 1610 is State law governing minimum flows in the Russian River and was initiated in the mid-1980’s.  We are only concerned about flows at the Hacienda Bridge, about five miles east of Guerneville.  At this point, NMFS is recommending the minimum flows be lowered from 125 cfs (during normal rain year) to 70 cfs between May 15 and October 15th of each year, a 44% decrease.  The BO has given SCWA four years to get an EIR certified from the time they submit a petition.  Less than three years are left.

The BO states that SCWA would operate with a buffer and that generally flows would only go as low as 80 cfs.  The DEIR gives the impression that low flows at Hacienda were 71 cfs.  This is misleading since flows at Hacienda in August, 2009 AVERAGED 63 cfs and went down to 47 cfs. Also, there were 31 days in 2009 when flows were lower than 70 cfs.  This greatly inhibited recreation in the lower river.  To have river flows at 70-80 cfs permanently would probably greatly impede recreation on the lower river on a permanent basis unless there were a series of summer dams along the lower river backing up the water.  Below 125 cfs, canoes have a difficult time, especially with weekend tourists who aren’t used to navigating.  We don’t think that additional summer dams could get permitted at this time.

The BO also required SCWA to get Temporary Urgency Change Orders from the State Board each year until D1610 changes become permanent.  There is no environmental review with these TUCOs, which are issued on an “emergency” basis.  They also come with the promise that there will be no water quality impacts, which is not the case.  There were monitoring requirements as part of the Order that SCWA did not meet and the Order was granted anyway.

The outcome is that Regional Board staff will do their own nutrient testing this summer.  We have been urging this for several years and are quite pleased it will happen.  RRWPC provided a great deal of photo evidence of nutrient problems during summer of 2009 (look at our website at  Recently, their Board authorized a work plan for this project and also prep work for listing the whole lower river for pathogen impairment on 303d.  Regional Board comments on the D1610 scoping really lay out the water quality issue clearly.  The DEIR concedes that water quality impairments may occur in the estuary, but still do not adequately address the water quality issue.

Regional Board staff are considering nutrient tmdls to address the “low flow” issue (i.e., permanent changes to D1610) because they believe there is a clear link between water quality impairments and low flow.  In addition, the Estuary DEIR estimates that nutrient and bacterial pollution upstream will cause problems in the Estuary.

Estuary Project & link with D1610:

The only justification given for lowering flows at Hacienda is to help the river mouth stay closed without flooding properties in the Jenner area (at mouth).  Yet the DEIR admits that no buildings will flood below 9’ and they intend to keep water below that level.  (see page 5-11 of DEIR) Furthermore, no part of SCWA’s water delivery system is west of Forestville, so the BO just skips over that part of the river.  SCWA justifies the bifurcation by saying that they are separating the process as directed by the BO. DEIR justifies not combining EIRs for two projects by alluding to their separation and sequential nature in BO.

Nowhere in the DEIR did I see a linkage of water levels in the Estuary, (breaching was done historically whenever water levels got to about 5’) and Hacienda flows.  Also there are about six or more permits with federal and state agencies that have been extended for one year only. There are also issues about the seals, which I can’t go into here.  Furthermore, they have no idea if they can get the proper stratification of salt and fresh water in the lagoon. It’s all one big experiment, yet they want permanent changes to D1610.

Topics of Concern:

DEIR includes extensive use of word “natural” as in “natural environment”, implying that there was a formerly ideal state that needs to be recovered.

BO claims that “low flow” is “more natural”  and pre-dam flows should be mimicked as much as possible.  Slight attention paid to changes in tributaries through the years.  To what extent does ground water and tributary flows contribute to summer flow?  Does “natural” refer to any condition in nature that has been unaltered by human activity?  (D1610 minimum flows are mostly relevant in a dry summer and draught.  This last year, because of heavy late spring rains, Hacienda flows averaged 260 cfs all summer long.)

There is no consistent, “natural” pattern demonstrated for mouth closings based on river flow.  Documents say in some places that the mouth closes most frequently between April and October.  In some places the DEIR states that it closes most frequently in April-June and September to October.  For the last ten years, there have been very few “natural” closings in July and August, even when flows are less than 70 cfs.

DEIR argues that because the project will function under a wide range of flows, it will be unnecessary to study impacts of “low flow”.  DEIR concluded that there was no clear relationship between river flow and mouth closures.  It is more likely that ocean conditions control mouth conditions (Page 3-3 states, “…the primary factors in barrier beach formation are wave activity and tidal exchange.”)

Issue:  Relationship of D1610 DEIR and Estuary Project DEIR:

Dick Butler (NMFS) June 22, 2010 letter that appears in DEIR states, “We believe that it is reasonable that the EIR for the Estuary Project consider the effects of flow changes associated with interim flow changes (associated with the TUC petitions) and use existing information to address the effects of these interim changes on the environment and resources such as recreation boating.”

DEIR states that backflow from closed mouth reaches as far upstream as Vacation Beach, yet studies and impacts are only studied up to Duncans Mills, with a small amount of information given on Monte Rio.

The only building that floods at 9’, other than one garage, is the Visitor’s Center, built on posts and piers and sits in the water with a sewer pipe going from building through water to ground.  It’s owned by the State.

Page 3-8 states that 99% of the time,  water surface elevation is below 7.7’.   (They don’t expect water levels over 9’, and they admit they don’t need low flow for this project.  Yet they are moving forward with consideration in a separate EIR.)

The environmental costs of “low flow” must be balanced with this Estuary situation.  During low flow, water quality in lower river deteriorates extensively with high bacteriological readings, excessive nutrients including massive algae blooms, and extensive Ludwegia mats.

Issue:  Baseline data is inadequate.  Water quality in lower river and estuary a serious issue that is not adequately addressed

Concludes that since river not listed under Clean Water Act as impaired for nutrients, current levels can serve as baseline for project as serving beneficial uses identified such as aquatic habitat and recreation.  Nutrient levels can be too high for fish even though not listed as yet.  (Issue:  Basin Plan standard is that nutrients must not exist that cause biostimulation of nuisance substances (algal blooms).

Data for water quality: where is it?  What happened to monitoring program set up with Regional Board under TUCO?  Nutrient data for 2009 deemed inadequate by Regional Board staff.  Why are they not in loop?

Massive algae blooms in parts of river during low flow.  Concern about blue-green algae, which can become a problem under low flow and with high temperatures.

50 fish species in Estuary.  If nutrient and temperature problems impair Estuary, how will they be affected?  Why has Chinook fell through the cracks during the fringe seasons, such as May and June?

What impact will a summer long closed estuary have on water temperatures in estuary?  To what extent will the 6’ to 9’ of fresh water lagoon be impacted by higher temperatures?  What happens to Steelhead when they are exposed to high temperatures over a long period (say 20-22 degrees Celsius)?  (Guerneville averages around 23 degrees in summer

Brenda Adelman