Sonoma County Gazette, July, 2013: Low Flow on the River

Summer is here, along with ‘low flow’ debate….At a special meeting on June 6th, as part of the Sweetwater Springs Water District regular Board Meeting, Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) staff described current river conditions, why low flows were necessary, and how low they may go.

Simultaneously, Santa Rosa has been revving up it’s “Take it from the Tap” promotional campaign, a State wide effort to get people to buy more municipal water, rather than the ever popular bottled.  While the merits of bottled water are often no more than convenience, encouraging customers to drink more tap (Russian River) water when flows are stressed, is dubious as well.  Conservation should be the theme of the day, not encouragement to use more tap water.

We also wonder why contractors have are not using local supplies?  One Petaluma City Council person contacted us recently wondering why SCWA never asked them to use their local ground water supply to offset river water?  Apparently, they would have been happy to do so.  In 2009 during drought conditions, the Water Agency was demanding that contractors use local supplies to the max and now, nary a suggestion to do so.  Why is that?

Why not mandatory conservation?  SCWA contractors have consistently avoided conversations about the damage to water quality in the river and the need for mandatory conservation.  At a Russian River Watershed Association meeting recently, not one word was spoken about flows or conservation.  At the end of the meeting someone brought up the possibility of dire flow circumstances this year and the need for stringent conservation.  The room was silent, and then members were told it would be discussed at the July meeting.

A similar thing occurred at a recent Santa Rosa Board of Public Utilities meeting.  The blank looks when asked about mandatory conservation came about because no one was telling them they had to do it.  And the Water Agency wasn’t telling anyone to do it, because the State Board didn’t tell anyone to do it.

No one has explained why mandatory conservation will not be implemented.  State Board staff said they were worried about drawing down groundwater in the urban areas and didn’t want an emphasis on use of local supplies. They also stated that SCWA would cut diversions by as much as 25% and this would preserve river flows.  It was not clear however, how this would be accomplished and so far, we haven’t seen it. In the past, such restrictions were always accompanied by contractors’ stringent conservation programs. As it turns out, the main diversions cut have been to the lower Russian River.

RRWPC developed a chart on contractor water use for the last five years.  It indicates  that summer water use in 2009, when flows were extremely low and mandatory conservation programs were in effect, that water use among contractors went way down that year.  Contractor water sales have been going back up significantly ever since with no mandatory conservation in effect in 2010 to 2013.   All but Santa Rosa now have water purchases back up to their 2008 levels, with Santa Rosa up about 33% over 2009.

Summer Low flows demanded by Biological Opinion…Because of the status of three listed fish species, the Biological Opinion, authored by National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) dictates that SCWA must apply to the State Water Board each year on an emergency basis for extensive minimum summer flow reductions.   The main purpose is to reserve adequate water in Lake Mendocino for the fall Chinook migration.  Another goal is to develop an Estuary lagoon to provide habitat for optimum juvenile steelhead growth before their ocean sojourn.

In a normal year, minimum flows at Hacienda are 125 cubic feet per second (cfs).   In a ‘dry’ year minimum flows go down to 85 cfs, and in critical dry years down to 35 cfs. At the June 6th meeting, SCWA staff added that after July 1st this year, if water levels in Lake Mendocino are below the projected storage curve for three days, flows may go down to 50 cfs and perhaps even 35 cfs.  In August 2009 flows averaged about 65 cfs for the month.  At that higher flow, we found extensive algae in the water.   We suspect the same will occur this year as summer wears on, the water heats up, and flows greatly diminish.

Also in 2009, bacteria counts exceeded limits on numerous occasions and beaches were frequently posted with ‘swim at your own risk’ signs that included notice of excessive bacteria.  (This year so far, there has been only one exceedence.).  Testing continues weekly through early September.   Yet at this time in 2009, river flows were considerably higher than they are currently (about 85 cfs).

Later this year an environmental document will be released calling for permanent lowering of minimum flows as described in State law, Decision 1610.  (SCWA does not control all flows as some are natural.  Therefore,  they can’t control maximum flows, only minimum.)   Yet those flows National Marine Fisheries Service considers appropriate for the fish, also exacerbates pollution,  which is bad for humans and fish, and fosters conditions that impact human health and recreation. It is essential that the environmental review address all water quality and recreational impacts on the lower river that will result from this project.  We will keep you informed on this.

(See Regional Board letter to State on possible water quality impacts from low flow that need to be fully addressed at:  section entitled Decision 1610.  On Home Page view 2009 Russian River Photo Project showing flow comparisons and extensive algae and Ludwigia in 2009.)

Recently, river levels have been going up and down like the tides…. Monte Rio Beach was photographed on June 1, 8, and 22, 2013.  This is the same beach photographed extensively in 2009.   On June 1st, flows were about 125 cfs at Hacienda which is extremely low for that time of year.  Only one week later flows were between 80 and 85 cfs and pictures show a dramatic difference in water levels at the Monte Rio Beach.  On June 22nd, flows were about 85 cfs but the river was much higher at Monte Rio Beach.  The river’s mouth had been closed for a few weeks, an unusual occurrence in recent years.  These pictures give a visual portrayal of how flows are affecting the river and we intend to visually document conditions over the entire summer.

Readers:  RRWPC is looking for help in photographing the river.  Please contact us at if you are interested helping out.  Also, at strategic times, we need more volunteers to send pre-written letters to the State about low flow.  We distribute these by email to people on our list.    Your letters have made a huge difference in the attention agency folks are paying to this issue.   Please send simple email to requesting to be put on email list or volunteering to help photograph.