RRWPC Newsletter, May 2022: Water policy changes on the way….

Major water policy changes on the way….At a time when the Russian River is most at risk, and also because of it, a major convergence of issues and an associated massive shift in water policy is being gradually revealed by the Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA).  The proposal of many changes to occur over the next few years, stimulated by the need to address drought and greatly diminished Eel River water transfers, includes managed flows at a level we have seldom seen in our lifetimes.

To illustrate the problem, we looked at May 3rd Hacienda flows for the last 19 years (Data for 2010 missing, but we eliminated that year from the calculation.) The average flow on or near May 3rd over the last 19 years was 617 cfs, but on May 3, 2022, the river flow measured 226 cubic feet per second (cfs) and in 2021 on that date, it was 71 cfs.  The 2022 flow was a little less than one third of 617 cfs and the 71 cfs was about 8.7%.  Of the dates we looked at, 71 cfs was the lowest flow we saw on that date, and 2290 cf s the highest occurring in 2006, a major flood year.  (2019 also saw a major flood and flows on May 3rd that year were 893 cfs.)

Minimal attention to lower river….But as far as we can tell, SCWA does not focus its attention on the lower river, they don’t adequately examine the effects of its actions on the lower river environment, they don’t admit to causing lower river impairments by their management of the river for 600,000 paying customers living in eight Sonoma and Marin urban areas on the 101 corridor including the Sonoma (city) area.  And they seem to happily greet flow constraints in Dry Creek as a means to severely limit releases to help the lower river environment.  Biological Opinion places regulatory limitations on Dry Creek that keep the lower river at flows that extremely limit recreational use and a healthy environment. It may be possible, with new fish projects almost complete, that flows can be increased a bit to help the lower river.  No promises though.

Making themselves quite powerful, the Agency has become prodigious fund raisers.  They own numerous valuable properties, they pay very generous salaries, and they have a great talent for making friends in Washington DC. and Sacramento, CA.  They are an intelligent, competent group.  But protecting the lower river is not high on their list of aspirations.  While serious problems with the Russian River County Sanitation District became apparent in 2014 when a major pipeline break caused 100,000 gallons of raw sewage go into the river, and with a key staff person warning of further pipeline failures, it has taken over seven years to take action on other serious pipe deterioration, and only then because they were warned, after pipeline failures only four months ago, that something must be done.  The emergencies are being taken seriously now as the Regional Board demanded it, and things are finally getting done.

Many changes coming….So what is coming?  Many issues are ones we covered extensively in the past and continue now.  For instance, in September, 2008, National Marine Fisheries Service released the Biological Opinion (BO).  It was a 400 plus page document explaining the impacts to threatened and endangered fish species throughout the Russian River and its perspective was to look at management of Sonoma County Water Agency activities in the Russian River and its spawning tributaries. (including Green Valley and Dutch Bill Creeks.) The BO led to the Estuary Project and the requirement that lower river minimum flows, as measured at Hacienda, be permanently lowered from 125 cfs to 85 cfs.

Natural flows would still continue between October 15th through May 15th each year, but summer flow releases from reservoirs adding to the flow would only occur when under 85 cfs rather than 125 cfs as before.  In dry years, 85 cfs would continue.  In critical dry years, flows would go down to 35 cfs based on a formula set by the State Water Board.  Until last year, the only time flows went down to 35 cfs since both reservoirs became operational, was last year because of drought and also 1977.

As mentioned, the Biological Opinion required permanent reduction of flow regime for entire river.  There was an EIR for the Fish Flow Project for which comments were due in March, 2017.  We are still waiting for a response.  Every year we are told that final review is coming, and then it doesn’t.  We were told 2023 it will really happen, and this time we think it really will, mainly because the term of the Biological Opinion (BO) is up Sept. 24, 2023. So, along with permanent flow changes, and possible cessation of the Estuary Project, which never really worked as described, the rewrite and reissuance of the BO will be going on also.  We have no idea where that is going and we have to track it.  There were many problems with the first one.  Consultants are currently writing what is called the Biological Assessment, which is a precursor to the new BO and another huge document we will have to review and comment on.  It reviews the status of the fish (not very good), the environment they live in (not much better), and the new changes that need to be made.

While permanent flow changes never happened this round, State and local water agencies substituted Temporary Urgency Change Petitions asking for changes each year.  Since they had ‘emergency’ designation, there was no public review required.  For the permanent review, the response RRWPC generated was so huge, the State never finalized the first effort and insisted it go back for so many changes that it had to be rewritten and reissued. So next year the rewrite should be more complete.

Resiliency is the word for drought….For years, SCWA has been studying various ways to add resiliency to their arsenal of tools to manage drought.  While this is a good thing, some of the methods will cut into lower river needs and take away flow that might otherwise come our way.  So we need to examine each one, read the reports and comment when necessary.

When contractors claim 20% and more water savings, they are comparing it to water use nine years prior in 2013.  This is authorized by the State.  I have compared water use based on sales from SCWA to contractors and have discovered no more than 9% savings (sometimes less) from the prior year.  Also, there are nine major contractors.  They joined together and formed the Sonoma-Marin Water Saving Partnership and merge their data.  Some of the contractors, such as Sonoma have little or no savings to report.  Finally, North Marin still allows people to fill swimming pools (average 14,000 gallons of water).

And also: we learned at a meeting from one SCWA high level staff person that they have trouble getting grants for low income communities because their agency’s operating budget is too high.  I know that many years ago they were paying $60,000 a year to people just out of college.  It’s probably more now.

One of the most egregious situations is that the State has issued notices to cities requiring enormous new affordable housing growth requirements.  The City of Santa Rosa is building thousands of new enormous apartment units, some eight stories high.  In order to do this, environmental review has been eliminated along with community standards review and some traffic and fire protection features.  Apparently there are no requirements for determining adequate water supply.  So at a time when water levels are at dire heights and curtailments abound, review of such standards has been eliminated for so-called affordable housing.

RRWPC needs your continued support…..RRWPC requests your continued support to sustain our river protection work, especially since it appears that we will need to obtain the help of an attorney at some point to delve into these issues mentioned. For those who have not donated recently, we appreciate any donation so that we know you remain interested in receiving our mailers.  RRWPC relies exclusively on six (or fewer) mailers a year for our entire fiscal support and we deeply appreciate the generosity our supporters have shown us.