Comments on DEIS on Expansion of Farallones and Cordell Banks Marine Sanctuaries

June 30, 2014
(submitted by email)

Superintendent Maria Brown
Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary
991 Marine Drive, The Presidio
San Francisco, CA 94129

Dear Superintendent Brown:

Russian River Watershed Protection Committee (RRWPC) appreciates the opportunity to submit comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the northern expansion of the Cordell Bank and Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuaries (DEIS) and proposed new management requirements for both sanctuaries. We attended the hearing in Bodega Bay where we gave public testimony. We reiterate our original comments here and add additional ones.

ng>Who we are….
RRWPC has been a public benefit nonprofit since 1980 representing hundreds of lower Russian River residents, property and business owners, recreationists, etc. who are concerned about water quality and flows in the lower Russian River, and is one of the most popular summer vacation destinations of the Bay Area. The lower Russian used to be a world class Steelhead fishing area. The river and its many tributaries has also provided extensive habitat for all three listed salmonid species (Steelhead, Coho, and Chinook) along with many other fish species.

RRWPC supports Sanctuary expansion…..
RRWPC supports the Sanctuary expansion and sees a huge benefit in protection of sanctuary boundaries from offshore drilling. The expansion will also provide benefits through enhanced scientific research and education. In regard to alternatives, RRWPC feels that the boundaries delineated in the Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey’s original bill are much preferred. We feel strongly that use limitations and protections in force under current Sanctuaries be adopted for the expansion. Then we would like to see any recommended changes be adopted separately in the future, with full involvement of the public and full review by Sanctuary officials and staff. RRWPC fully supports comments submitted by Surfrider Foundation and West Marin Environmental Action Committee. (We have not viewed other comments except for Dr. Largier’s.) Some of our comments are based on those of the Marin group.

Maintain original legislative intent for northern expansion……
RRWPC strongly supports the proposed northern expansion of both national marine sanctuaries as originally envisioned by former Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey in her federal legislation proposal. Her proposal expanded boundaries of both sanctuaries
1) under existing federal regulations, and
2) to the mean high tide of estuaries in the expansion area.

Yet the DEIS proposes to significantly roll back Sanctuary protections in its “preferred alternative”, rather than simply carrying forward existing regulations. Furthermore, the DEIS ‘preferred alternative’ would NOT protect sanctuary resources to the mean high tide line. NOAA should abandon its attempt to push through multiple controversial regulatory changes at this time and instead proceed with completing the boundary expansion as originally proposed with the intent of reviewing controversial topics down the road.

Remove “authorization” proposal allowing currently prohibited activities…..
The Sanctuary expansion unfortunately contains a controversial provision that significantly expands exemptions to prohibited activities “if they were approved by another authorizing entity.” Prohibitions can currently be exempted for pre-existing rights; for research, education, salvage or management purposes; for Department of Defense activities; for emergencies; or to promote public access, use and understanding. These exemptions are understandable.

However, currently exemptions are NOT allowed for purely commercial activities that may be permitted by another agency such as:
(a) discharge, construction, drilling, dredging or other disturbance or…
(b) Taking…a marine mammal, sea turtle, bird [or] historical resource…
(c) Laying cables, pipelines, alternative energy projects,
(d) Sewage outfalls…coastal armoring…ocean discharges,
(e) dredging…establishing new dredge disposal sites

These exceptions and others are antithetical to national marine sanctuary protections. If allowed to take effect, ‘authorization’ provision would authorize national marine sanctuaries in name only. Virtually every possible use other than off shore oil drilling could be “authorized” under management regulations proposed in the DEIS’s “Preferred Alternative.”

Additionally, the “authorization” provision contains grossly insufficient ‘due process provisions’. As proposed, NOAA’s “authorization” provision relies on CFR 922-49 that contains no requirement for public notice, no requirement for a public hearing and no right of public appeal. This lack of public engagement and notice is totally unacceptable.
We request that you delete ‘authorization provision’ entirely from proposed regulations and “preferred alternative” in final EIS.

Critically important that river estuary be included in expansion….
It is important to remember that Congresswoman Woolsey included the estuaries in the approved legislation, and there was strong justification for that inclusion. Furthermore, we believe that most commenters support including those three estuaries. As reasons for decimation of historical fish runs over the last 50 years are not fully known, your Agency developed a Biological Opinion with the Army Corps of Engineers and Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) in order to provide further protections. While, the term of the Biological Opinion ends in 2023, the term of the Sanctuary is forever, and therefore it is of critical importance that Russian River Estuary be included under Sanctuary protections.

Furthermore, we support Dr. John Largier’s comment that: “There are several key river-valley estuaries in this region, specifically the Russian River, which should be included in the expanded GFNMS. An appropriate boundary in the estuary would be the extent of seawater intrusion, which is in the vicinity of Moscow Road bridge at Duncans Mills – or at least to the extent of the deeper seawater-dominated habitat, which extends to where Sheephouse Creek enters the estuary.” Dr. Largier is an expert on the ways that negative river conditions can provide difficulties for the marine environment. We fully support his involvement in helping to address these issues.

Negative river impacts from upstream land use and wastewater irrigation and discharge practices (over-irrigation adds nutrients and toxins to river system at a time when assimilation is almost nonexistent.), seriously impaired water bodies with high temperatures, low flows, excessive nutrients and sediments, and unknown toxicity, can have a devastating effect, especially in terms of nutrient growth, chemical bioaccumulation and bio-magnification, fish habitat destruction, and riparian damage. (An EIR is anticipated at the end of this year on permanent changes to Decision 1610 that will drastically lower flows in the Russian River, thereby creating unknown cumulative impacts, especially to the fishery.) While the Sanctuary cannot be responsible for these problems, all of their effects end up at the mouth. It is critical that the Sanctuary be involved in major decisions that will impact their area of responsibility to protect the nexus between river and sea.

Our already impaired river (temperature, sediments, pathogens in main stem and more in tributaries) is bound to deteriorate in the future because of drought and very low flows, not to mention unknown global warming impacts. The estuary is a sink for upstream water quality degradation which is particularly severe during low flows and high temperatures. Regulators have had their enforcement ability curtailed by inadequate budgets and spend much of their time writing regulations that are only minimally enforced. Extensive opportunities for additional scientific investigation of impairments (especially toxic substances) in the estuarine environment can help address, or at least bring to light more of these problems.

Linkage of Rivers and Ocean in Estuaries are critically important….
Over the last several years, RRWPC has become concerned about inadequate linkage by local officials of water quality impairments further up the river in relation to the Jenner Estuary. There are many unstudied impacts to the estuary and lower river from undocumented toxins that may be affecting aquatic life, especially those of endocrine disruption. The entire river is clearly impaired for temperature, and excessive sediments, and while only partially listed for pathogens at certain locations, through the TMDL process that is likely to change soon. Problems with bacteria are widespread and it is likely that the entire lower river will be listed including tributaries. This should be of concern for the Sanctuary and those charged with protecting the threated fish species and the whole goal of the Biological Opinion has been to provide healthy habitat at the mouth of the Russian River. Threatened fish species must live in both fresh and salt water environments where, in order to thrive, they need healthy conditions. We strongly support including the Russian River Estuary (also Gualala and Garcia Estuaries) as part of this Sanctuary Expansion.

Nutrient and Cumulative Impacts issues…..
Over the years, efforts to address cumulative impacts of the many and various river projects affecting water quality have been inadequately addressed. (i.e., long term gravel mining, vineyard conversions, frost protection and wastewater discharges, etc.) Although not yet listed under Clean Water Act 303(d), nutrients are also a serious problem, providing a super abundance of many different species coming from different unidentified sources especially during summer low flows. (please see attached photo of nutrient pollution of Visitor’s Center in Estuary) A great deal of nutrient pollution needing to be identified and quantified has been observed in the Estuary.

As part of the Estuary Management Project, the Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) has been conducting a number of studies in the Estuary related to their plans to manage it as an essentially closed lagoon under specific circumstances between May 15th and October 15th . Those conditions have not occurred in the last four years they have been planning the project. When water levels get too high at any time during the year, SCWA breaches the mouth in order to prevent flooding of a few structures.

Impacts of breaching need to be fully addressed along with toxic impacts….
Impacts of breaches on estuarine environment are unclear, (SCWA can conduct as many as 10-12 a year) and where toxins are concerned, only very limited studies have occurred. In full disclosure, our group filed a CEQA legal action on this project which was settled a little over a year ago. We won’t go into settlement terms here, but will say that a limited amount of sediment toxicity testing has and will occur, but much more needs to be done. Most of what is being looked at now by SCWA involves testing for conventional pollutants, wave and wind action, and seal research. All of this is extremely useful, but will end around 2023 and doesn’t adequately address toxicity.

While the Estuary Project requires monitoring of bacteria, nutrients, salts, temperature, there is no monitoring under the Biological Opinion for toxins, even though the California Bays and Estuaries Plan specifically states that such studies should be conducted in the Russian River Estuary. For the most part, we don’t know what toxins are present, except some Mercury has been found and needs further study, and flushing waters released during breaching may contain many undesirable contaminants. Since the river has been listed as impaired for sediments, probably containing many contaminants, who knows what is being released when breachings occur? The need for study to protect the fish is great!

Endocrine disruption issue needs to be addressed…
We are especially concerned about the issue of endocrine disruption which in many cases has feminized fish. In their fish count studies, we believe the Agency has been finding far more female fish as it appears the males appear to be more sensitive to endocrine effects. Where there are male fish reproducing, it is also possible that reproductive functions are not adequate. We are hopeful that the Sanctuary will make an important commitment to being involved in this important work by including the estuary in the boundaries.

We have explored the website of your Northwest Fisheries Science Center which conducts studies on endocrine disruption. Can that service be extended to the Sanctuary or are there other institutions, such as the Bodega Marine Lab, that might address such concerns for the Mendocino, Marin, and Sonoma Coasts? There could be great benefit to river and ocean fisheries to do so.

It is clear that the fish species of concern are in a very fragile state, with numbers tragically so far below what they were only fifty years ago that only artificial means can guarantee Coho survival these days through brood stock programs. The salmonids live significant parts of their lives in both ocean and riverine environments, with the estuary being the nexus between the two. To artificially determine that it’s too difficult to include the estuary would be a major failing of this process. It is one thing to say you can’t immediately address the problems, it is quite another to say you NEVER want to deal with it. We strongly believe that at a minimum, the problem should be defined. If the body has ‘cancer’, not doing anything is not an option.

Remove “Personal Watercraft Zones” to be allowed along Sonoma coastline….
DEIS provisions creating large recreational zones for use of personal watercraft – jet skis – within Marine Protected Areas should be removed. It appears that NOAA interpreted public comments professing need for surfer safety to mean that “jet ski” zones are desired. Use of personal watercraft to provide surfer safety, like the use of personal watercraft for law enforcement or emergency rescues, is supported by RRWPC, NOT recreational jet-ski zones.

Recreational use of personal watercraft through Marine Protected Areas violates the intent and spirit of creating California’s statewide network of MPAs and should not be allowed. “Potential impacts include physical damage to marine life and shallow habitats and behavioral modification and site abandonment/avoidance by sea birds and marine mammals…” Surfrider Foundation’s Sonoma Chapter does not support this proposal. The public requested regulated personal watercraft use with permits available only to highly qualified experts to address surfer safety concerns.

We recommend that you delete the personal watercraft/ jet ski zones entirely from the proposed regulations and final environmental impact statement preferred alternative. We request that you work with Sonoma Surfrider Chapter and other stakeholders to develop a user-friendly permit system to allow personal watercraft for surfer safety activities only.

Please amend new “Wildlife Protection Zones” to fully protect wildlife at some of the most important wildlife areas in the Sanctuary…..
RRWPC fully supports West Marin’s EAC comments on this topic, and believe that over-flight limit should be at least 2,000 feet high, and that over-flight protections include all of Tomales Bay, Point Resistance, the spit at Drakes Estero, and the shoals at the Farallones Islands.

Closing thoughts….
RRWPC supports the northern boundary expansion that in no way impacts recreational or commercial fishing rights or regulations. Sustainable commercial fishing is an important part of the economy and cultural heritage of the North Coast.

PS: We have included comments from Regional Board on Russian River problems that may result from low flow.