Sonoma County Gazette, June 2015: The Drought

You might want to consult a Ouija board to find out when the drought will end or even when it started. We have been getting very confusing signals not only from weather patterns and rainfall amounts, but also from the people who track them. Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) claims we are in the fourth year of drought, but rainfall numbers don’t necessarily bear that out. On the other hand, Lake Pillsbury and Lake Mendocino are definitely ‘low’ now, even though, according to the State’s calculations, they have had a ‘normal’ rain year.

Erratic rainfall averages during the last four years….As an example, Santa Rosa normally gets an average of 32” of rain each season. In 2012, Santa Rosa got 37.58” for entire year according to the University of California Cooperative Extension. In 2013, they had 4.85”, in 2014: 34.66”, and in the first five months of 2015: 4.33”. So according to the numbers, in the last four years we have had two normal years, one very dry year, and this year is definitely lower than normal but we don’t know final numbers yet.

Lake Mendocino’s role in lower Russian River flows unclear…..The Russian River is a managed system, but it’s unclear where our flows come from, apart from local rainfall and natural flows from local creeks. Formerly, we have sometimes been told that releases from Lake Mendocino provide needed flows to maintain minimum levels, and at other times releases from Lake Sonoma have done the job. Now we are being told that neither will supply those levels and our guaranteed minimum flows must come down by about 33%. The Temporary Urgency Change Order, issued by the State Water Board authorized Sonoma County Water Agency to lower minimum flows in the lower river from 125 cubic feet per second (cfs) to between 65 and 85 cfs.

Neither do we know what portion of lower river flow comes from natural tributary flows and rain/runoff events, from Lake Sonoma releases, groundwater interchanges. and from upstream wastewater discharges. Our minimum flows are being lowered because SCWA does not want to release water from either reservoir to provide normal summer flows.

Yet the Order states, “Term 20 of SCWA’s Permit….requires SCWA to…..release from storage at Lake Mendocino sufficient water to maintain specified instream flows for the protection of fish and wildlife, and for the maintenance of recreation in the Russian River.” But the recently released SCWA document, Lake Mendocino Water Supply Reliability Evaluation Report, Term 17, states that, “No additional releases are made to meet……the minimum instream flow requirements for the Lower Russian River.” (emphasis added in both statements) These two statements appear to contradict one another.

To make things worse, further reductions will be necessary soon…..Brad Sherwood of SCWA announced on May 8th, “It is thus likely that further Russian River flow reductions will be necessary, probably to “critical” water year levels (25 cfs) in the upper Russian River as early as July 1.”   And it will probably also be necessary to request a decrease to 25 cfs in the lower river for the entire summer because of PG&E’s need to greatly lower flows from Pillsbury to repair the Potter Valley Project.

Such low flows could greatly harm the recreation season, possibly decimate many creatures depending on the river for their water supply, and could cause the growth of blue-green toxic algae in what water remains.  That in turn can seriously affect the health and welfare of any life form reliant on the lower river for their wellbeing, including the riparian vegetation that serves many useful functions.  And, because this is done on an emergency basis, all this would occur without environmental review.

(We have pictures taken in mid-May showing ugly algae proliferating in the Rio Nido area of the river and we have data from Vacation Beach and four other down river beaches showing out of compliance phosphorus readings there and five other beaches downstream.)

And in adequacy of flows for new growth…..The Water Agency’s General Manager made the following comment at a recent developers’ conference (as quoted in the Press Democrat) where he stated,”… in spite of four years of drought, “….we’ll have enough water, so that’s not an excuse to say we can’t build affordable housing.” However he did NOT say how much others will have to give up in order to add new housing, or where else the new water might come from. On the same day as the conference, but at a different meeting with agency heads, he said, “It underscores the need for communities that depend on Russian River water to boost conservation efforts and develop off-river alternatives, such as recycled wastewater.” (This appears to put water needs of new development on the backs of current users.

Unfortunately, irrigation with recycled wastewater, if not done appropriately, has the potential to do great harm to the health and well-being of small children and wildlife and must not be used carelessly. (We have noted many instances of runoff and over-irrigation at schools, parks, bus stops, and other urban areas where children may be exposed.)  But urban and County utilities departments are acting as though recycled wastewater is the same as potable water supplies, and it absolutely is not.

EIR for permanent lowering of flows to come out soon…… The Environmental Impact Report for the Fish Flow Project (permanent lowering of Russian River minimum flows) will be released in a few months. We predict a major campaign by the Water Agency, the County, the City of Santa Rosa, contractors, developers, and other to support this action. Less water for the lower river means more water stays in the reservoirs for the developers.

It is disturbing that monitoring of the lower river demonstrated that excessive phosphorus, algae, and bacteria proliferate there. The lower river is formally listed as impaired for sediments and excessively high temperatures and in some places, bacteria. Any flows under 70 cfs would assure further degradation on a regular basis, and guarantee continued harm to recreation, the fishery, and the general health of the river.

And up to now, agriculture has not adequately controlled their water use; required monitoring of ground water use is still fiercely opposed; cities have not yet instituted enough strict mandatory conservation requirements nor shrunk their general plan projections to address what appears to be repeated water shortages; and inadequate measures are in place to assure that irrigation with wastewater does not become regular discharge into streams.

NOTE: The Biological Opinion requires SCWA to apply for yearly Temporary Permits to lower flows in the Russian River at Coyote Dam, at the confluence with Dry Creek, and at the Hacienda Bridge (sometimes known as the Guerneville gauge). These permits have been regularly granted by the State Water Board and include various requirements. Environmental review is not required for the TUCPs (Temporary Urgency Change Petitions). In the past they have been effective between May 15th and October 15th and have required that minimum flows meet 70 cfs (formerly 125 cfs) in the lower river during normal flow years and 35 cfs during critical dry years. The most recent Temporary Urgency Change Order (issued May 1,2015) is effective May 1 thru October 27, 2015. Flows will be reduced to between 125cfs and 85cfs from the confluence of Dry Creek to the Pacific Ocean.