RRWPC Newsletter, July 2021: Drought, Septics & THP

While many are now breaking free of COVID and roaring back to their former lives, others are wondering if the Russian River will have any water next fall.   It’s rather disconcerting to talk to people about running out of water if they respond with, “What drought”?  I photographed the approximately one foot deep mid-river flow recently at one spot in Monte Rio, a sure sign we’ll have a problem.  Here’s an update…

Governor declared drought emergency…In late April, Governor Newsom declared a drought emergency for Mendocino and Sonoma Counties, triggering emergency measures to address the drought while not yet making them mandatory. (Some mandatory requirements are only now beginning to kick in.) The declaration included expanded powers for the State Water Board to begin very complicated curtailment actions in affected areas, while also providing a strong basis for the Sonoma County Water Agency to file a Temporary Urgency Change Petition (TUCP) requesting the lowest possible flow minimums in the already distressed lower river below Dry Creek.

This year’s TUCP requested ‘Critical Dry’ designation for the lower river along with rolling averages that could bring flows down to 25 cfs for short periods. Hacienda minimum flows are 125 cubic feet per second (cfs) in normal rain years, 85 cfs in dry years, and 35 cfs in critical dry years.  The 35 cfs designation has only happened once or twice before, yet thus far most Sonoma County and Water Agency contractors are only requesting 20% voluntary water savings from water users, while not also stating 20% of what.  However, they are implementing plans to inform customers about the critical need to conserve and provide information on the many ways to do it.  The question is: Is this too little, too late?

We also question some assumptions about how to achieve higher conservation levels.  Healdsburg declared a 40% goal for mandatory conservation while aiming to get individual water use down to 74 gallons per person per day (gpppd). This would be difficult, since 55 gpppd is usually the standard to reach 20% savings.  We believe that more stringent water savings would probably be needed for actual 40% savings.

Water availability is hard to calculate….Problems in meeting these goals can come from undefined amounts of legal and illegal water diversions along with natural evaporation and bad actors who simply don’t care.  Since late April, in only two months without mandatory conservation, Lake Mendocino dropped 3,600 AF (9%) and Lake Sonoma dropped 18,400 AF (7.5%), with the whole summer of hot weather left.  SCWA’s goal is to retain 20,000 AF of current supply for fall fish passage and carry-over to next year in case of continued drought. That leaves about 7,500 AF in Lake Mendocino to get the upper river through what is likely to be a very hot summer.

RRWPC is concerned that mandatory savings should have been implemented months ago, all new development and agricultural permits should be put on hold until rains begin, significant price increases should be implemented for large water users, and “heavy sticks” should be exchanged for “carrots” to deal with recalcitrant water users.  Furthermore, our group had requested that more water be released from Lake Sonoma in order to keep flows at mid-range 60 cfs in order to minimize excessive algal growth and provide health and safety flows for both lower river people AND wildlife.  So far they don’t appear to want to do this.  (To stay informed on conditions, RRWPC’s drought comment letters can be found at website above. Here is address for State’s drought information website: https://www.waterboards.ca.gov/drought/ )

On June 22, 2021, the State Water Board circulated the Notice of Proposed Emergency Rulemaking, upon which they were taking public comments for the next five days before sending to the Office of Administrative Law (OAL).  OAL will check the document for legal correctness and is expected to give its seal of approval soon after that.  (This is all on a fast track.)  The contents of the legal notice defines the various rights and which parts must be curtailed and which not.  The whole field of water rights is so incredibly complex, we do not know many laypeople who fully understand it well.  Refer to the drought information website for further information and explanation (see above).  Most of the Order is focused on the upper river, because Lake Mendocino is far more stressed from drought conditions at this time there.

Other issues heated up as well…Things have been heating up with wastewater issues lately, including Russian River County Sanitation District and the Monte Rio/Villa Grande septic system effort.  Although former’s discharge permit has been already approved, most of it was well done in our view.  We have some remaining concerns about the irrigation issue, especially in conjunction with the large timber harvest being planned in the area.  Guerneville Forest Coalition tells us that CalFire has delayed the final decision on requirements nine times now. We are not sure why things are being held up but we can tell you more about all these topics in our next mailer.  If something critical comes up, those on our email list will receive action alerts.  Our next mailer will come out the end of August.

RRWPC needs your continued support!  RRWPC requests your continued support to sustain our river protection work. For those who have not donated recently, we appreciate any donation so that we know you remain interested in receiving our mailers and supporting our work.  RRWPC relies exclusively on six (or fewer) mailers a year for our entire fiscal support.  You may contribute via check by mail to address above, or PayPal at our website.

USPS Problems…..We’ve been having trouble with the mail lately and are concerned that some donations may not be getting through.  We always send out formal thank you letters within five weeks of sending mailer out.  If ever you don’t receive letter after having sent a donation, and you haven’t moved recently, please contact us and let us know. (email is best)  Also, if you move, please send us your new address.

We need more email addresses….About 2/3 of our supporters have shared their email addresses with us and that allowed us recently to send out some very important alerts to supporters regarding drought conditions and a request for brief email to the State asking for higher flows.  On very short notice, about 45 of you responded.  Thank you for taking the time. It made a difference. We also request that you help spread the word about our work.  Do you have a friend or relative who would like to receive our notices and letters?  Send us their mailing address for letters and email address for notices.  For those of you not on our email list as yet, we only send email announcements that are very important.  They are usually infrequent and we keep your address confidential.  Tell friends that we are the source for inside information that often doesn’t get printed in other places.

We need help this summer taking photographs of the degrading river…..We are looking for several people to take river pictures this summer.  You don’t need to be an expert, but we appreciate reliability and modest skills.  We hope to assign beach locations where repeat photos will be taken of select spots between July and mid-October (or first rain).  We want to put together a notebook showing what happens during very low flows.  We did this in 2009 and it was very useful for demonstrating conditions.  We would like to cover beaches from Forestville to Duncans Mills and it’s possible to take pictures from shore.  Also, we expect to assign one or two beaches per photographer. Please send email (address in header) if you are interested and we can talk about the details.  Also, you would need your own camera.  We would also appreciate help with publishing the notebook.  If you have any skills to volunteer, please let us know that as well.  (Our last one was ten pages in color.)     Have a great summer!     Brenda