Sonoma County Gazette, June 2013

Russian River flows at the Hacienda Bridge recently dropped from 300 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 140 cfs.  For this time of year, that’s a trickle.  And there’s more to come.  Here’s the latest on the County’s inaction plan for dealing with low summer flows…..

Sweetwater Springs to host Water Agency ‘low flow’ meeting….
After learning in April that reservoir levels at Lake Mendocino were extremely low for this time of year and too quickly going lower, Russian River Watershed Protection Committee (RRWPC) urged SCWA to include a low flow agenda item at the recent May 16th Estuary Project meeting in Monte Rio. 

Initially, SCWA refused to include low flow on the agenda of the Estuary meeting.   After many citizens contacted the Supervisor and Water Agency’s  General Manager requesting them to reverse their position,  the County had a change of heart.  A brief update on ‘low flow’ at the Estuary Project meeting was given and plans for a new meeting dedicated strictly to the low flow issue was announced.

Steve Mack, general manager of Sweetwater Springs Water District, graciously offered to sponsor the meeting as part of Sweetwater’s regular board meeting.

Here are details:

WHERE:  Monte Rio Community Center (enter parking lot across from Rio Theater)

WHEN:  June 6, 2013   5:30 to 7 pm

WHO:  Supervisor Carrillo and Sonoma County Water Agency staff

WHAT:  Discussion of lower river management this summer and anticipated flows

(Sweetwater’s regular board meeting will start at 7 pm, after low flow meeting.)

Low Flow Facts:
Lake Mendocino’s capacity is 116,500 Acre Feet (AF).   The Army Corps of Engineers’ (ACOE) primary obligation is to manage Coyote Dam and Warm Springs Dam for flood control.  ACOE and SCWA share joint custody of dam management.  A formula based on reservoir levels determines when ACOE takes control of releases from Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma, generally occurring from Nov. 1st  to March 1st during normal rainfall years. During a dry year, it’s possible for SCWA to remain in charge all year.

Because the Water Agency is under orders from the National Marine Fisheries Service’s (NMFS) Biological Opinion, releases from Lake Sonoma, which is almost full, are severely constrained.  In other words, the water behind Warm Springs Dam, for which we paid dearly, is not available to us.  (Large releases are hazardous to juvenile fish in Dry Creek.)

Big release in December causes shortage in May……
On Dec. 26, 2012, Lake Mendocino contained 94,298 AF of water. One week later, on Jan. 3, 2013, the reservoir contained 68,874 AF of water.  The Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) had released over 25,000 AF of water IN ONE WEEK!  This represented 27% of the water stored on Dec. 26th.  The highest level achieved in Lake Mendocino since that time has been 72,537 AF.

Lake Mendocino contains about 59,000 AF now, after having had three prior years of normal river flows.  Four years ago, the third year of draught conditions, Lake Mendocino had contained about 55,300 AF.  While we have more water in the dam now,  what’s worse is that Lake Mendocino is draining at a much faster rate this year then in 2009.  If we have a hot summer, and without mandatory conservation, all those people watering their flowers and vines will draw down much of the water before summer is over.   Recreation and water quality do not appear to factor into their consideration.

The lowest number is…?
The Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) manages summer flows. While SCWA has stated that they hope to keep lower river flows over 50 cfs this summer, there are no guarantees.  Flows can go down to 35 cubic feet per second (cfs). Recreational difficulties and water quality concerns start to occur below 100 cfs, so it may be irrelevant at some point whether they are 35 or 50, since both are far too low to protect those conditions.             We have no idea of what long term damage will occur with extended periods of such flows.

In 2009, during a significant drought and critical dry conditions, August flows got down as low as 45 cfs, but most of that month averaged around 65 cfs, probably because mandatory conservation was in effect.  (Minimum flows in normal years are maintained at 125 cfs.)  The rate of draw down is faster now than in 2009, generating Agency concerns that there won’t be enough water for threatened Chinook migration in the fall.

Mandatory Conservation should be imperative…!!
If we have a hot summer, high water use by contractors will occur unless mandatory water conservation is implemented.  Only strong measures  in the form of higher prices will convey the seriousness of the problem to water users.   If we also have high water use by agricultural operations, reservoir levels could go down even faster. In hindsight, if we had not lost that 25,000 AF in December and January, we would probably not have this situation now.  SCWA needs to do all they can to remedy the issue for ALL water users, and not just customers.

Contractor water use went down considerably under 2009’s mandatory conservation requirements.  They have been creeping back ever since.  At contractor meetings, SCWA expressed gratitude for the increase of water sales on numerous occasions, since their budget had been severely constrained by diminished sales.   Yet we never heard concern expressed about, nor need to address losses experienced by the lower river community.  Because of budgetary constraints suffered by all contractors in recent years, SCWA went to great lengths to keep water rates as low as possible so their urban customers would not complain.  Lower river residents, business owners, and summer visitors had no place in their considerations.

Water quality is a serious concern….
Surface water quality has been compromised for many years. The river is impaired for excessive sediments, high temperatures, and pathogens.  It should be formally declared impaired for nutrients as well.  More and more, excessive nutrients are being seen as river killers, as they cause the decrease of dissolved oxygen and the increase of nuisance plants such as algae, and invasive plants such as Ludwegia.  There is especial concern that toxic blue green algae can take hold under these conditions.

In 2009, Russian River Watershed Protection Committee ( composed a 2009 Photo Project showing many examples of algae blooms in lower river, which had been greatly exacerbated by low flows.  In their application for the Temporary Urgency Change Order  (i.e., low flow request to State Water Board), SCWA included test results of several conventional pollutants, with phosphorus and bacteria the most problematic. Phosphorus causes proliferation of algae, invasive plants, and other biological nuisances.  Furthermore, these circumstances are all harmful to the fish, supposedly the main consideration for which these flow changes are being made.

Please attend Monte Rio meeting on low flow and demand mandatory conservation by urban water users!