Russian River Watershed Protection Committee
P.O. Box 501
Guerneville, CA 95446
January 14, 2021
Forest Practice Program Manager
135 Ridgway Ave.
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Jim Burke: NCRWQCB
Matt St. John: NCRWQCB
Cathy Goodwin: NCRWQCB
Grant Davis: SCWA
RE: Silver Estates THP #1-20-00084-SON
This letter supplements the comments we submitted to the Forest Practice Program Manager on Sept. 28, 2020.
Dear Forest Practice Program Manager:
RRWPC wishes to provide additional comments regarding other concerns about the Silver Estates THP. RRWPC has a great deal of experience responding to EIRs over the last 40 years but the experience of commenting on this THP is like no other CEQA process I have worked with.
Comments on Public Process:
For the last forty years, Russian River Watershed Protection Committee (RRWPC) has worked on water quality and quantity issues, which has included comments and presentations to the State and Regional Water Boards, the County of Sonoma, the Sonoma County Water Agency, the City of Santa Rosa, and others. Our efforts have included the reading and commenting on Environmental Impact Reports issued by these governmental entities over that period, including Santa Rosa’s 26 volume, $16,000,000 document calling for increased wastewater discharge into the Russian River. (They unexpectedly ended up with the Geysers Project instead.) We have tracked the Russian River County Sanitation District off and on since its inception. We have also worked with other environmental groups on various water issues over the years. Some of our work included the filing of lawsuits.
Never have we seen an environmental review process where numerous significant changes were made during the review process and before the public comment deadline. Nor have we experienced decisions that are more or less finalized (Second Review) before final public comments are due and subsequently responded to by CalFire and other forestry related agencies.
In a June 4th email from Jamie Pusich to John Dunlap he states, “During the review process certain language and maps may change based on the Agency Review Team Questions and Recommendations. Once the THP is re-submitted and Accepted for Filing a Pre-Harvest Inspection will be scheduled for the Review Team to meet with the RPF in the field and review with THP and proposed operations. Then the THP will go through a Second Review where the Review Team will look through all the review documents, public comments, and any supporting documents, and make any final recommendations before sending it the Director for a final decision on approval.” The comment period ends ten days after the Second Review and then the final decision is made. It’s my understanding that responses to comments occur AFTER the final decision is made. This is not appropriate or fair.
There has been a lack of clarity coming from some of these changes. Will toxic pesticides and/or herbicides be used anywhere in the THP area (where, when, how much, etc.)? We have heard various promises as to whether winter harvest would occur, and what saturation conditions should be present in order to stop harvest? How will harvest be scheduled in locations where irrigation practices cause fields to be perpetually wet during the summer season? (lower irrigation field) Also it appears, as we read the document, that consistency has not been achieved and that it cries out for more detailed explanations.
Hardly ever have we witnessed (that I recall) an agency holding a public meeting to hear staff presentation on the matter leading to a decision, and not allow any public comment or questions during that meeting. Furthermore, study documents are normally prepared well in advance, notices are widely distributed, comment deadlines are announced, and pre- and post-comment meetings are scheduled. No changes are made to draft document until public written comments are responded to, (Public meetings are common before document is released where the public also has an opportunity to comment and ask questions.)
We realize that this environmental review comes under the Forest Practice Act allowing this unstructured approach of making on-going changes to the document by concerned agency personal during the public review process, making the document a moving target, and causing it to be next to impossible for the public to give meaningful testimony in a timely manner. For instance, page numbers change as sections are added and subtracted, making it difficult for the public to attribute comments to specific items in the review document and to track the information. There is also inconsistency in the response process. Some members of the public get comment responses prior to second review, and others don’t. New items keep getting posted, forcing commenters to have to revise their comments in order to maintain their pertinence.
This is a process that frequently blocks open decision making and often prohibits meaningful remedies to address public concerns. Their health and safety and property values are at risk, but they are generally treated as though they have no say because the property owner has rights to make money off tree harvest, and that usually takes priority over quality of life issues of affected population.
How will summer water needs of trees be altered by harvesting project?
The plan states trees will not be felled during soil saturated conditions. How is saturation defined? During the irrigation period, when trees are most likely to be harvested (May 15 – Oct. 1), it is common for soils to be in a saturated condition, especially in the irrigation field. We have heard for years that the lower irrigation field is usually highly saturated during the irrigation period. Will saturated conditions on irrigation sites in summer prohibit harvest in that area? Why isn’t there more information on this in the document about conditions in that area? How will this be coordinated so that cutting does not occur under saturated conditions in that area?
Maeve Katherine Bergman states in her recent comment letter on page 4, “THP Wetlands remain undesignated without more time or money; several areas within the THP are regularly wet and/or flooded. For example, neighbors visiting the Clar Tree found the ground sodden and water in deep pools. However, this area, like other wetlands, is not designated as wetlands in the THP.” Maeve was not familiar with the history of the Treatment Plant. I am fairly certain that the boggy conditions are from the irrigation and probably should not be allowed to occur to the extent that it apparently is happening. I do not think they are natural wetlands.
I do not intend to criticize Maeve’s assertion, but merely acknowledge that she identified an important problem that could be affected by the current THP. The lower irrigation area has apparently been super saturated for a long time, perhaps initiated by the establishment of the irrigation field. But our soils are different from the Laguna, which is a designated wetland and contains different features from the lower river.
In regard to the saturation, at one point, the Regional Board discovered that constituents from the wastewater were getting into the ground water and probably into the river. They issued Cease and Desist Order No. R1-2014-0002 in 2014 as a result of a determination that excessive irrigation was occurring and going where it shouldn’t. The Regional Board determined that the facility was not meeting their groundwater discharge specifications and a monitoring well was established slightly downstream from the field. One finding in the Order was as follows (page 2 of Order): “The discharge of any waste not disclosed by the Permittee or not within the reasonable contemplation of the Regional Water Board is prohibited.”
A statement that helps to verify our concerns, on page 4 of the Order it states, “While irrigation of the golf course is performed at hydraulic agronomic rates (e.g., rates that do not exceed the water needs of the vegetation), irrigation on the Burch property is generally performed at greater than hydraulic agronomic rates (e.g., at rates that exceed the water needs of the vegetation.)…A review of the Permittee’s monitoring reports reveals that for the period of 2009 through 2013, the Permittee applied an average of 28.2 million gallons per year to the Birch property (upper and lower), with an average of 22.7 MG per year being applied to the lower Burch property and 5.5 MG per year being applied to the upper Burch property.”
The Order went on to claim that the trees didn’t need the water (in summer) and the saturated conditions were the result. The Regional Board never explained (to my knowledge) how they concluded that the trees didn’t use the water or how much was used. They were mainly concerned that the irrigation water was transferring polluting constituents to the ground water. When operators fixed the problem so that a downstream well was no longer showing exceedances, the issue was resolved in their view, even though the over-saturation apparently continued. Apparently the sodden irrigation area was not their concern. Yet it is interesting that newer regulatory views of irrigation do not support saturation of fields with wastewater. The 2009 Recycled Water Policy (and subsequent versions) clearly promotes applying wastewater at agronomic rates and not allowing runoff or saturation (except for a brief time when first applied). In fact, the irrigation at the golf course carefully adheres to that regulatory requirement.
I came across a letter from Randy Poole (Chief Engineer and General Manager of SCWA) dated July 28, 1998, regarding harvest on the same property. He states, “1. The District cannot have its reclamation season disposal operation disrupted. The lease agreement allows logging at the owner’s discretion; however, the District requires considerable cooperation regarding the timing of any timber harvest and in maintaining the District’s irrigation equipment, disposal area, and access roads.” And also, “2. The District needs additional information regarding how many trees will be harvested from its reclamation season disposal area. The number of trees and basal area are needed in order for the District to calculate how evapotranspiration rates will be affected.”
We don’t recall reading about the number of trees to be cut in the current THP, (we don’t think numbers were given) and we didn’t see any specifics about number of trees to be cut in Poole’s letter. The THP seems to address the issue of the irrigation hardware in the current THP, although I did not see who would be responsible for replacement if the harvesting causes damage to the equipment. As for impacts to the remaining trees and the irrigation requirements, the THP seems to merely rely on increased transpiration that would result from tree cutting for resolving the problem.
As for evapotranspiration, we saw no information quantifying how much is evapotranspirated under normal conditions, let alone any estimates how much of the wastewater application will evaporate when trees were cut (Again, how many trees will be removed? What percent of the field would this be? The theory that removing trees is good for transpiration and therefore good for the environment, doesn’t address the overall impacts to the ecosystem and how all these factors balance one another out and how they affect the trees when they are out of balance.) The ecosystem can restore itself eventually, but not if frequent harvests are common, especially when economic considerations receive priority.
In a June 30, 2013 article entitled Fog and Redwoods: Demystifying the Mist by Joan Hamilton, she said: “In summer, coast redwoods can get more than half of their moisture from fog. Scientists once assumed the trees had to soak up fog’s drippings from the soil. But then, in 1998, UC Berkeley biologist Todd Dawson showed that they could also absorb moisture through their leaves. “
The need for summer moisture from fog becomes a problem for redwoods in summer as global warming gets more severe, and the loss of summer fog becomes ever more likely. (To what extent is it already impacting the trees?) The THP and the above mentioned Order state that the trees need a greater ability to transpire the over-irrigation that is occurring and that tree removal will address that. We believe that more information on the impact of global warming on this situation is needed. What are the water needs of the trees under various weather scenarios? We have had several drought summers over the last ten years. How does that affect the trees? Is the irrigation necessary to address the problem or do current levels cause over saturation? Removing trees in irrigation fields will have an impact, especially if global warming causes summer fog to disappear.
Right now the Regional Board has a policy of allowing over irrigation through ‘land disposal’, where agronomic rates are not enforced. Yet, if global warming occurs and summer fog disappears, will the removal of trees have a big impact on redwood and Doug Fir survival? Also, redwood trees live in families, and when part of their family is taken, they can become more fragile and susceptible to weakening of their structure and change in their biological makeup. What are the impacts from these changing conditions? And does one impact exacerbate the likelihood of another? It seems like the condition of viable timber in the long range (i.e., maintenance of tree health) is not a subject of this process. Perhaps it should be in light of the need to continue appropriate utilization of irrigation fields for the operation of RRCSD.
In fact, a January 11, 2021 public letter from Grant Davis, head of Sonoma County Water Agency (managers of RRCSD also), expressed great concern for our current rain deficit. He stated, “Filing a Temporary Urgency Change Petition is one tool to saving water in Lake Mendocino due to potential drought conditions,” ….. “Our community can help too by saving water by using water wisely. While there is still opportunity for rain in the upcoming months, we must prepare now for continued dry conditions and implement every tool we can to save water in our reservoirs…. The Sonoma-Marin Saving Water Partnership is implementing a rare Winter-time public outreach campaign seeking the community’s help in saving water. The Partnership represents Sonoma Water and its wholesale water contractors, or the cities that deliver drinking water to more than 600,000 residents in the North Bay.”
The THP also lacks consideration of impacts to RRCSD irrigation capacity as a result of logging large trees in the Silver Estates irrigation areas and also lacks analysis of other impacts to upper and lower irrigation areas as a result of removing trees that had agronomically utilized the irrigated water (whether or not required by the Regional Board). In 2019 the upper irrigation field disposed of 6.5 MG in that area over a 4.5 month period. To what extent would tree harvest cause runoff if that same amount were applied after harvest? Is there any slide potential (and other geological impacts) in that area if surplus water were released downhill as a result? (I believe that in 1978 there was a large slide behind the treatment plant.) I think that the uphill irrigation area is behind the treatment plant. I couldn’t tell from the maps provided if the irrigation and the slide may have been connected. Because tree removal will cause water in the area to move elsewhere, if not diminished in quantity, shouldn’t the impacts of that movement be addressed?
Somewhere in all these documents, I read that on average the upper irrigation field irrigated 6.5 million gallons (MG) in 2019 rather than the average of 5.5 that was stated in the Order. The upper field is about 3 acres and the irrigation occurs over approximately 100 days in summer. By contrast, last year the lower irrigated about 20 MG all summer over about 13 acres. I’m guessing that the lower amount on top of the property is in consideration of trying to prevent runoff down below. If that is the case, I don’t think the upper field is an issue, although I have never seen pictures of the field, visited or studied it and also have not seen any documents on operation of the irrigation in the area. I tend to think that it is not much of a problem, although the impact of cutting trees up there needs to be closely examined as well.
We have made the following list of some issues that need to be addressed:
- Have specific trees been identified in irrigation areas and a determination made of agronomic loss? (estimate of water use of each tree based on size)
- Good irrigation practices require that RRCSD not have standing water in an area longer than 24 hours. We believe that some kind of analysis should be made after tree removal to determine how much irrigation water should be cut back. Then it should be determined whether irrigation replacement area is needed to compensate and whether that amount is available somewhere on the property in a way so that all requirements can be met?
- Is coordination planned between forester and RRCSD staff so that harvest will not occur within 24 hours of latest irrigation period so that work will not occur while ground is still saturated? What happens if ground is found to be saturated most of the time?
- Will there be some kind of notice of specific time when harvest is planned and will RRCSD staff be notified in a timely manner?
- Are there other parcels on THP property that are relatively flat and can be used for replacement wastewater irrigation?
Miscellaneous other concerns:
I am not a scientist and cannot answer the questions. While scientists can and have been hired, because of economic considerations, their depth of study on some issues has probably been limited. There is an especial need for scientific analysis of the trees and ecosystem, how they respond to available water supply, and what changes they experience based on those findings, especially where irrigation is involved. I found limited information on the web.
Also, in the August 5th report of Izaac Russo to Jim Burke, he states, “Other members of the review team are expected to provide recommendations related to water quality. We discussed specific recommendations during the PHI, and I concur with those being necessary for water quality protection. Therefore, in the interest of efficiency, those recommendations will not be reiterated here. However, the Regional Water Board concurs with recommendations related to water quality protection.” This is too bad; I would have liked to see those recommendations and I think they should have been conveyed in the report on the Pre Harvest Inspection Report and Recommendations. I have never seen a reputable document refrain from providing essential information because it is inefficient to do so.
In general, there may be reasons behind all my concerns that are not documented in THP materials. But when citizens raise serious concerns, they should be appropriately addressed and taken seriously. There is instances when this intelligent group of people know more than the so called experts. They live here all the time because they have an unsurpassed love of their environment and want to keep it and themselves safe. You need to pay better attention to that.
Brenda Adelman: Chair of the Board for Russian River Watershed Protection Committee