RRWPC Newsletter, June 2023: Low Flow and the Biological Opinion

Biological Opinion and lower river flows are up for review again…..Public comments on the Russian River Fish Flow (Low Flow) Environmental Impact Report (EIR) were due in mid-March, 2017.  There was no deadline for the Water Agency’s response, but every year since, the release date for responses has been pushed back.  These responses and then a hearing before the State Water Board would have probably led to permanently cutting minimum summer flows in the lower river by half.  Seven years have gone by and we are still waiting, although temporary annual changes to low flow have occurred almost every year since.  Staff announced recently that EIR responses to comments on environmental impacts to lowering summer river flows, will not occur for another two years. In the meantime, the lower river continues to suffer from very low flows, very high temperatures, and excessive algae.

(About 800 of you submitted legal protests (prepared by RRWPC) against very low flows.  The Board must formally notice all of you when they take any action.  They may anticipate that by waiting this long, the list will go bad as people will move, pass away, or lose interest and there will be far fewer people to deal with. If you ever get a State official letter, please respond and let them know you oppose low flow.)

The Biological Opinion (BO) was originally planned as a fifteen year study of steelhead, coho, and Chinook salmon habitat and first released in September, 2008. Various projects were required in order to improve habitat through this plan. It also studied the ways in which dam and reservoir management at Lake Sonoma and Lake Mendocino impacted habitat for the disappearing salmonids.  It contained numerous components, but for us the most important were those planned to occur at the Estuary, including the permanent lowering of minimum flows in the lower river to accommodate those changes. The new BO will be reviewed, revised, and renewed before permanent changes to flow will occur.  (This process has been convoluted, and we can’t be sure of anything since all decisions are made in the back room and we can’t know what they are doing until they announce it.  Many changes are likely to occur between now and then.)

Biological Assessment will come first….The Water Agency will first complete the Biological Assessment (BA), which further studies current fish habitat, determines results of the first round of environmental studies, and analyzes which activities need to continue or be revised or dropped altogether.  One thing that we are quite sure will NOT be dropped is the goal of lowering minimum summer flows in the lower river from 125 cubic feet per second (cfs) to now 60 cfs.   The BA studies flood control operations  by the Army Corps of Engineers (winter) and water supply operations by Sonoma County Water Agency (summer) to assure that beneficial conditions are maintained, and sets new flow regimes for the summer and fall based on past weather and anticipated future conditions.  It looks at habitat enhancement throughout, and it looks at operations conducted by those agencies to serve all beneficial uses which include fishery habitat, agricultural activities, recreation, water supply, water quality, and more, to make sure they all support necessary fish habitat requirements.

The purpose of maintaining summer low flows, is to keep water levels in the Estuary at a point where more fresh water habitat (as opposed to salt water habitat) is available in the lagoon habitat located above the mouth of the river, but not so high as to cause flooding in the Estuary.  It is believed that lower flows help assure a closed mouth that in turn helps create beneficial habitat for the juvenile fish, resting them up as they grow fat preparing for their sojourn in the ocean for several years.  But due to low fish numbers, managers have been unable to determine whether or not the project has actually improved the steelheads’ life cycle (the most likely fish to benefit from the project).  Also, most of the time the mouth stays open in summer and it would be hard to demonstrate that low flows affect those closures since it is more likely that summer wave action by the ocean has a greater impact.  It’s a complicated and controversial assumption, but the scientific evidence so far leans in that direction.

Temporary Urgency Change Petitions and Orders keep river flows low….These are annual permits applied for by the Water Agency each May and (within a month) approved by the State Water Board to implement the same low flow regime that fishery agencies demand in the permanent order.  RRWPC is most concerned about the changes to minimum summer flows in our area, sending flows to less than half of what they were before the BO: 125 cubic feet per second (cfs) as measured at the Hacienda Bridge in normal years having adequate rain.  (Minimum flows mean that they have to be maintained at 125 cfs and can’t go lower. When the river goes below that level the Agency would have to release more water from the dams to bring it back up again.  Originally we were told that the higher flows maintained during normal rain years would only go down to 85 cfs.  Then we were told flows would be between 70 and 85 cfs and now we learn they want (and Water Board staff approved) a “rolling average” where levels can go as low as 60 cfs.   This depth was approved by the State Board staff.  The trick is that they let us think that flows will usually stay at 85 cfs, when in actuality the requirement does not place any order on 85 cfs, only that they will try to keep at that level.  The only real requirement is that the Water Agency is not allowed to ADD releases to any flows OVER 60 cfs.

RRWPC learns some interesting facts that were heretofore a mystery……The Sonoma County Water Agency is most concerned about having enough water for their 600,000 customers in Sonoma and Marin counties.  We do not think that any water from Lake Mendocino (LM) gets down to our area during drought.  Lake Mendocino is about 1/3 the size of Lake Sonoma and we believe that flows from Dry Creek, Mark West Creek and the Laguna, as well as lower river creeks such as Porter, Green Valley, Atascadero, Dutch Bill, and Willow Creek provide our flows in the late spring and early summer most, if not all years.  We have also heard others express the same reservations about Healdsburg flows.  Water Agency staff have claimed that we do get flows from Lake Mendocino during summer drought when we start to talk about Lake Sonoma releases into Dry Creek.  We think this is a way of deflecting attention from Dry Creek flows.  (Dry Creek is downstream of Healdsburg and only downstream flows can benefit from the addition of that water.)  We have continually suggested that the substantially sized Lake Sonoma can add water to the lower river in summer most years, but Water Agency is primarily focused on flows for their customers.  Their response is always that the Biological Opinion won’t allow it.

RRWPC knows that National Marine Fisheries Service has always believed that releases from Lake Sonoma into Dry Creek needed to be cut in order to protect juvenile fish swimming up stream against heavy releases needed by SCWA to provide water for their 600,000 customers. We have searched for the flow requirements for Dry Creek and never found clear information.  Instead, we usually saw data that indicated what appeared to be excessive discharges that could be detrimental to the threatened fish species this project was supposed to save.  Recently, we found a statement on SCWA website that may inadvertently clarify the issue (called telling the truth):

The Russian River Biological Opinion found that summer flows in the upper Russian River and Dry Creek are too high for optimal juvenile coho salmon and steelhead habitat.  Current summer flows in the creek range from 110 to 175 cfs, which make it difficult for the young fish to thrive.  The BO recognizes that large reductions in the summertime flows in Dry Creek would limit Sonoma Water’s ability to deliver water to its customers.”  It goes on to discuss habitat improvements that would allow for higher flows to continue.  Since early on, SCWA has been working on projects to provide such habitat and have two miles to go. (If they slow flows in Dry Creek, they would be able to release more water for their customers drinking water supply.)

But none of this addresses the thousands of new units already constructed and those many more being planned, and the amount of water they will require.  All the larger cities are doing it.  People keep insisting that more housing is needed, but almost all the housing built is market rate.  Developers want to make money, and profits are hard to come by for those on very low incomes.  Once again, the environment, and the very poor, get the shaft.

RRWPC needs your continued support!   RRWPC needs your continued support to sustain our river protection work. Donations have been very sparse lately and particularly for those who have not donated in a while, we would very much appreciate your contribution at this time.  RRWPC relies exclusively on six (or fewer) mailers a year for our entire fiscal support.  You may contribute via check by mail or PayPal at our website.  We appreciate any amount you can donate at this time. Thank you for your loyal support.      Brenda