Estuary FEIR Letter to BOS

Russian River Watershed Protection Committee
P.O. Box 501
Guerneville, CA 95446

Board Chairman Efren Carrillo and Board Members
Sonoma County Water Agency Board of Directors

Sent by email: August 15, 2011
Hand delivered: August 16, 2011: 10 AM

Dear Board of Directors of Sonoma County Water Agency:

RRWPC submitted extensive comments on the Draft EIR for the Estuary Management Project. We remain in support of everything originally stated, but do not believe that the consultant adequately responded to many of our comments. This letter in intended as a last minute appeal requesting that the Board refrain from certifying the EIR and selecting the Estuary Management Project.

Our major concerns include, but are not limited to the following:

Bifurcation of Estuary Management Project and Fish Flow Project:
It is commonplace for SCWA to bifurcate issues in EIRs and piecemeal projects. They divided the expansion of the Russian River County Sanitation District into four projects. They recently approved the Urban Water Management Plan, which depended on bifurcation, with the contractors analyzing their water demands and SCWA analyzing available supplies. In 2005, the Agency wrote the full Plan addressing both demand and supply. (We hereby submit both SCWA’s 2010 UWMP and RRWPC’s related comments as part of the record.)

Bifurcation of the Estuary Management Plan and the Fish Flow Project avoids full examination of the environmental impacts that will result from the Estuary Project. Many, many people provided comments on this issue, as it is one of the most serious lapses in the DEIR, and one noted by almost every commenter. The rationale for setting things up this way allows the consultants to avoid presenting compelling and substantive evidence for most impacts in the area upstream of the project, and in even identifying, except in a vague and very general way, the expected problems that will evolve as a result.

The FEIR provides artificial attempts to deny the relationship between lowered flows under Decision 1610 (D1610) and the combination of fostering closed conditions at the mouth of the river, maintaining a fresh water lagoon, and breaching to avoid flooding properties in the Jenner area, also known as the Estuary Management Project. (Project)

There are many examples in the DEIR and the Biological Opinion (BO) that draw a clear link between the need for lowered flows as measured at the Hacienda Bridge in the lower river and the maintenance of 7’ to 9’ of water in the Estuary. RRWPC has documented many of them extensively in our comments.

One of numerous examples includes:
Page 1-2: RRBO finds that: “ The Russian River Biological Opinion found that artificially elevated inflows to the Russian River Estuary during the low flow season (May through October) and historical artificial breaching practices have significant, adverse effects on the Russian River’s estuarine rearing habitat for juvenile salmonids, particularly steelhead.”

Another important example of the need to join the Fish Flow Project and Estuary management is seen here:

Page 1-2 of the DEIR states: “The Russian River Biological Opinion found that artificially elevated inflows to the Russian River Estuary during the low flow season (May through October) and historical artificial breaching practices, have significant, adverse effects on the Russian River’s estuarine rearing habitat for juvenile salmonids, particularly steelhead….. The Russian River Biological Opinion 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.”

How can it be more clearly stated that the BO links high flows with the Estuary Project and the need to lower flows in order to have successful lagoon formation? It is also of extreme importance that less fresh water, rather than more, is of the utmost importance in regards to maintaining the lagoon formation. While managing flooding is part of the picture, it is not the most essential part, especially since the likelihood of flooding is greatly diminished with low flow. In fact, that is the main reason for requiring it. It seems silly to almost everyone, that the whole lower river should be negatively affected by extreme low flows in order to protect a few structures in the Estuary. But that is what is happening here.

FEIR gives numerous reasons for separating these two projects. For instance, they insist that the BO prioritizes the Estuary Project as coming first because it will take much longer to process changes to D1610. What they don’t mention however, is that the Temporary Urgency Change Petition process mitigates for the delay. Conveniently, the TUCP does not require CEQA review, although the Order does come with a request for monitoring. Typically there are no required mitigations for water quality problems with the TUCP however, which grant minimum flows requested on an annual basis.

The FEIR also justifies the timing by asserting that each project listed in the BO was intended to deal with CEQA separately. What FEIR does not mention is that most of the other projects aren’t critically connected to one another and their separation, since in most cases they really are physically distant from one another, is not environmentally significant. For instance, stream maintenance in the Laguna Area will have no impact on the Dry Creek habitat improvements and visa versa.

That is not the case for flow changes at Hacienda in relation to the Estuary Project. The Estuary Management Project is the ONLY REASON given for low flow at Hacienda. There is an integral connection between the two, as demonstrated repeatedly through RRWPC photographs. Low flow exacerbates water quality pollution problems in the lower river. We will go into this more in the water quality section of this letter.

Furthermore, on page 2-24 of FEIR, document insinuates that there is no nexus between the two projects. Besides water quality problems, there is virtually no discussion of the impacts on recreation in regard to anything but beach facilities run by governmental agencies, especially Goat Rock. There are numerous private businesses on the lower Russian River that deal with tourist use and while the Agency consulted with them on numerous occasions for the TUCP and the Fish Flow Project, none appear to have been approached regarding the Estuary Project.

So a vast amount of information on recreation in the lower river is being ignored on the assumption that there is no nexus between the two projects. This is a false dichotomy, since swimmers, canoeists, kayakers, etc., often recreate in both areas. There simply is no line where the Estuary stops and the river begins in so far as recreation goes. And the impacts from low flow on recreation will be profound.

Breaching and project uncertainties……
Managing the Estuary for flood control is a key component of the project, and breaching is the controlling factor in managing the level of the Estuary. Pages 2-12 and 2-22 to 2-23 describe the circumstances under which breaching will occur during the project period. It is estimated that fresh water lagoon conditions would be maintained from one to five months. This provides huge uncertainties in regards to the level of impact both in the Estuary and upstream.

It is clear that in their efforts to promote conditions advantageous to threatened species, they will impact, in some cases severely, other species in the process. Because no one really knows how the project will end up, what management issues it will be faced with, and the duration of the project, it is next to impossible to produce, with any certainty, the range of impacts that will truly occur.

That uncertainty is reflected in the following comment on page 2-22: “Certain conditions during the lagoon management period, such as water quality degradation or imminent flooding to properties and structures adjacent to the Estuary, could require a change in management, and may result in the Water Agency breaching the barrier beach during the lagoon management period. If Estuary water surface elevations rise above 7 feet (at the Jenner gage) and flooding appears imminent (approaching 9 feet; giving consideration to river inflow, rate of Estuary water surface elevation rise, and ocean conditions), the Water Agency may artificially breach the barrier beach during the lagoon management period to alleviate potential flooding, as discussed in the NMFS’ Russian River Biological Opinion.”

They go on to estimate that breaching during management period will occur around twice a year the first three years and once a year after that. Outside of the management season, breaching would occur as under historical conditions. It is assumed that impacts resulting from historical practices, whether in the Estuary or upstream, do not need to be analyzed or mitigated.

In our studies of the information provided on the flood situation, there is really only one building that is not a dock or a garage, and is subject to inundation at 9’. That is the California Visitor’s Center, constructed in the water and seemingly in poor shape. According to the FEIR, most other structures and septics begin flooding around 10’ to 12’ and above. The preferred project is calling for maintaining estuary levels at 7’ to 8’ although it appears that N.M.F.S. in their comments wants to see water levels at 8’-9’.

Historically, based on the Russian River Estuary Study of 1992-93, it was recommended that breaching would take place between 4.5’ and 7’. At the time, there was no analysis, or provision of compelling and substantive evidence that this practice was necessary for any other purpose than protecting properties. Yet the fact that it was an historical practice seemed to serve as the rationale for not studying its impacts at all in the area between Duncans Mills and Vacation Beach. The Russian River Estuary Study was conducted in 1992-93 to provide scientific studies of the impact of breaching (there were mixed results with some species harmed and others not). The study did not challenge the need for the project.

We wonder why the Biological Opinion and the Estuary Project didn’t take a much stronger position in regard to this breaching practice, since breaching totally undermines the goals of this project? With all the effort and expense going into attempts to maintain a closed fresh water lagoon, why was there virtually no attempt to totally cease breaching during the project period of May 15 to October 15? In light of all the comments in the DEIR as to the negative impacts of the practice, it’s never fully explained why all this harm is allowed in order to save so few structures? (it is unclear how high water levels would go with NO breaching, but certainly aiming to breach at 9’ or higher would eliminate almost all under all normal summer flow scenarios.)

(This project specifically states that breaching will continue normally outside of the project period. Can this trigger the need for further environmental review since the review process for that action took place in the early 1990’s?)

At a meeting RRWPC had with NMFS staff in 2010, it was stated that managing the Estuary at 8’ or 9’, as preferred by NMFS, would probably eliminate any need for flows to be lower than 125 cfs at Hacienda. It would minimize the costs of the project (thereby making water contractors happier) and the number of disturbances to Visitor access on the beach would be greatly minimized. (State Parks expressed great concern about this issue.)

Many people in the community wonder if the true motivation of SCWA is to use this project as a justification to store the saved water (from lower minimum flows) behind the Coyote Dam for use by their contractors in the summer time as expressed in their recent Urban Water Management Plan (please include UWMP document into the record for this project).

“…for normal water supply conditions, because minimum instream flow requirements below the confluence of Dry Creek and the Russian River are (and under the proposed reduced Biological Opinion flows will continue to be) lower than the instream flow requirements in the Russian River above Dry Creek, the Water Agency is not required to release water from Warm Springs Dam to meet instream flow requirements in the Russian River below Dry Creek. To this extent, water stored in Lake Mendocino provides an incidental water supply benefit to the Water Agency’s transmission system customers.”

Breaching is justified for this project based on historical practices. Where is the compelling evidence for the need for breaching? There is no question that large numbers of people and properties, not to mention fiscal impacts, will suffer as a result of changes to D1610. Yet breaching is an integral part of this project and at lower levels, only serves the needs of less than a handful of structures. Breaching should only be considered under extreme circumstances, but here is being treated as routine. What is puzzling, is that breaching totally undermines the whole point of this project, and it seems as though every effort should be made to do it as seldom as possible.

As stated in the DEIR (p.3-18), “Artificial summer breaching programs abruptly terminate the transition between marine and freshwater conditions and typically do not allow for a full conversion to productive freshwater habitat.”

Master Comment (FEIR p.2-5) states that, “The Water Agency is required to implement the Estuary Management Project during the lagoon management period, regardless of the inflow into the Estuary at the time of barrier beach formation and closure of the river mouth.” While that is true, it does not logically follow that no impacts will occur, nor that they do not need to be studied. It also does not consider the probability of project failure during those times when flows are higher, breaching needs to occur, and the salt/fresh water balance is undermined, causing the goal of the project to fail. In fact, it is rather strange that, while breaching undermines the goals of the project, nevertheless it is still allowed by the project in order to prevent flooding of a few properties. So to say the project will be operated IN SPITE OF HIGHER FLOWS AT TIMES, the truth is that the goals of the project will not be met if the higher flows require breaching of the mouth and salt water intrusion into the Estuary is allowed.

Project Description:

The DEIR has chosen to prefer managing the Estuary at 7’, but NMFS prefers it to be higher than that. The project description on page 2-11 describes the practice rather cryptically: “…refinement of management actions to achieve desired water levels to support biological productivity, while simultaneously providing flood control for properties adjacent to the Estuary.”