Sonoma County Gazette, July 2011

Computer Controlled River

Our beautiful Russian River provides solace for recreationists on lazy summer days, even though essentially controlled by computer models during most of the vacation season. The flows gently rocking kayaks and canoes are managed by the Sonoma County Water Agency, the State Water Board, the National Marine Fisheries Service and correspondingly, State and Federal Water Law. Right now, thanks to late spring rains, the river is still flowing high, and for a little while “mother nature” will remain in charge.

Our river is for sale….
Agency employees are usually good people; they want the best for all of us. But they have legally designated responsibilities and their focus is on meeting their obligations. Although they might deny it, preservation of our beautiful and popular lower Russian River is not usually at the top of their priority list. Their main job is to maintain the water delivery system for their contractors. (Water Agency operations are upstream of Forestville at Wohler and they generally address few downstream concerns.)

As for the Biological Opinion, that Federal document requiring the implementation of “low flow”, in its enthusiasm to promote a closed agoon at the mouth of the river, it fails to consider the potential negative impacts of doing so.

Urban Water Management Plan guarantees water supply to 2035…..
This same inattention to the lower river environment was evident in the Urban Water Management Plan, authorized recently by the Directors of the Sonoma County Water Agency (Board of Supervisors). The document’s top priority was to predict water availability to meet summer demands of their water contractors (Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Cotati, Petaluma, North Marin Water District, Marin Municipal Water District, Sonoma, Valley of the Moon, and Windsor).

Each contractor with 3000 connections or more was required by the State to project their water demands based on their General Plan population projections for the next 25 years. (These projections become self-fulfilling prophesies since they assure that adequate water exists for new development which can then be approved because it has been declared that there is adequate water.) In the past, the Agency did one plan for everyone. Since the major lawsuit on the 2005 Plan, all contractors but Valley of the Moon contrived their own demand projections for their respective districts and most wrote separate plans. This strategy made it much more difficult to file a legal challenge, if one were to occur.

Santa Rosa inflates demand projections for 2015…..
As an example, Santa Rosa’s projections for the next five years greatly inflated the demand by about 4% annually even though their growth rate for several years has been under 1%. (In 2010, they had requests for about four building permits.) When the UWMP assures that it has enough water to meet contractor demands, contractors are given free rein to use more water. The city’s justification for the big increase is that they saved so much water in 2009-2010 due to water shortages, and the economy and housing market has caused unusual lowered water demand, that they are now allowed to catch up and go beyond what they had used previously.

The responsibility of the Water Agency’s UWMP is to determine water supply reliability under various flow scenarios for all contractors, and they use computer models to make those projections. The outcome is seven different documents using different input assumptions and methods for demand and the County Plan that analyzes water supply. The idea of models is supposedly to predict the future based on past events. But the future is really unknown, so guessing is permitted. And guessing leads to fantasy and wishful thinking. While many of their projections are based on past realities, nevertheless, there is plenty of room to fudge the data and secure the outcome they want.

Computer model validity relies on integrity and assumptions….
There’s a saying, “garbage in and garbage out”. That means that if you don’t use valid assumptions and accurate, meaningful data appropriately, you get “garbage” information. This is quite common. Unfortunately, most people generally have no way of knowing the value of the information. In fact, there are only a few people at each Agency who have deep knowledge about how these models function and whether appropriate information has been fed into it.

So here are some of the assumptions fed into the Water Agency’s model that determined there was enough water for everyone in four back-to-back dry years until 2035:

• They assumed no earthquakes or major disasters would occur and dams would remain intact;

• They assumed that the State Water Board would adopt changes to Decision 1610 (low flow) without modification;

• They assumed that the Potter Valley Project run by PGE would continue to provide the same diversions from the Eel River that currently occur;

• They assumed that PGE would not dismantle or earthquakes destroy the dilapidated structure even though it is in a very poor condition and almost not generating enough energy to make it PGE’s while to continue;

• They assumed that global warming would not cause 3-4 back-to-back drought years equal to 1977;

• They assumed that a pipeline could be financed (about $140 million) and built if habitat enhancement projects in Dry Creek did not satisfy needs of Biological Opinion and projected flows would continue;

• They assumed no dam failures resulting from aging infrastructure;

• Worst of all, they assumed that the water saved by the successful implementation of Decision 1610 WILL BECOME AVAILABLE FOR OTHER USERS.

In regard to the last assumption, it is intriguing that in one section of the document it states that implementation of D1610 will mean they don’t have to send as much water to the lower river from Lake Sonoma. In another section, they said that water saved from lowering stream flow will be stored in Lake Mendocino and can be utilized by other water users. Furthermore, they fail to clearly demonstrate how those water users will be affected by the required lower flows in the upper river (185 cfs to 125 cfs) in trying to obtain that extra water. Water Agency staff have assured us that this has all been calculated by the Model, yet nowhere in the document was the amount of water to be saved and the estimated flows necessary over what period of time was needed to save that water.

Are these assumptions reasonable? You be the judge!

Brenda Adelman is the Chair of Russian River Watershed Protection Committee, and may be contacted at