Sonoma County Gazette, March 2007

Update on water supply and low flow issues

By Brenda Adelman

The low flow issue has become a very complicated subject, but we will attempt to address it as clearly as we can.  First, Randy Poole, chief engineer of the Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) stated at a recent meeting that “low flow” (minimal summer dam releases) would not be considered in the Biological Opinion due out from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in a few months.  That document, for the time being, will only address current operations.

This document defines Federal concerns about the water system’s operational impacts on threatened and endangered fish species.  New “low flow” requirements, were they to occur, could diminish summer flows so greatly that it would have a major impact on recreational activities in the lower river.

The issue is far from dead, and will probably be revisited in the environmental impact process for their long term water acquisition plans, which includes an increased water diversion from 75,000 acre feet a year (AFY) to 101,000 AFY.  That is when alteration of minimum summer flows is likely to be considered. It is anticipated that it will be back on the table within the next five years, if not sooner.

The Biological Opinion will analyze operational impacts of the current water system on threatened and endangered fish species in the Russian River.  One of the major concerns is controlling releases from Warm Springs Dam down Dry Creek.  If too much water is released, habitat conditions are such that the fish can’t survive.  Since the Water Agency needs to release enough water to assure adequate water supplies for their contractors, they will probably study an expensive pipeline to the Russian River, and possibly a water treatment system that could cost $500,000,000 or more.

In the meantime, the Federal Government determined that PG&E releases at the Potter Valley Project have been excessive, and much more water (33%) needs to be reserved for the Eel River, from which the water came.  Yet, as Sonoma County cities grow, SCWA needs to be able to access more water for their increased demand.   Simultaneously, there is a greater demand for ground water, and people are very concerned about drawing down local aquifers as well.

Many people tracking water issues believe that the Urban Water Management Plan, which identifies water resources available for planned growth, is grossly inadequate.  Large development approvals are based on “paper water” and putting meaningful policies in place to sustain our water resources (such as riparian protections)  have not been made a priority by local County officials. Officials have been heavily involved in public relations campaigns and bond funding acquisitions, but have done little in developing meaningful policy to protect surface and groundwater resources.

Policies are needed to address agricultural and institutional use of groundwater, especially in the identification of illegal uses, since no one has a good handle on how much groundwater is being used and who is using it.  Well owners have been very opposed to well monitoring called for in the proposed Water Resources Element of the Sonoma County General Plan, basically because they see it as an invasion of their privacy.  In truth, as things are now, a large agricultural operation can move in, dig a deep well, and bye-bye water supply.  In fact, SCWA has deep wells in the Laguna that have been depleting water supplies in the Sebastopol area (They never see their use as “illegal”.) Ground water management is necessary to assure that water supplies are equitably distributed and managed.

This water saga is assured to provide news copy to local newspapers for many years to come.  We will continue our efforts to keep you informed.

Brenda Adelman is chair of Russian River Watershed Protection Committee (RRWPC), a group that has been in existence since 1980, working for a clean Russian River.  RRWPC can be reached at