Sonoma County Gazette, September 2015: Toxic Algal Bloom

Summer on the Russian River…..The Russian River appeared broad and full as photographed from the Monte Rio Bridge recently with camera’s eye facing downstream, however there were clues that the river was not as it seemed. A man was standing with his daughter in the middle of the river; the water barely covered their ankles. The green algae sparkled in the sun beneath the shallow surface of the water.   Numerous bathers hung out at the Monte Rio Beach that hot summer day, but only the dogs could swim there. Then, viewing the river from the upstream side, canoes could be seen negotiating the mats of algae drifting on the water’s surface. In close up, it was not a pretty sight.

Beaches posted Aug. 21st with Caution Warnings re: toxic blue-green algae…..On August 21st, a notice came through from the Sonoma County Department of Health Services stating: “Recreational users of the Russian River are encouraged to take precautions”. This was the first official notice for the Russian River citing toxic blue-green algae, and an issue of concern for Russian River Watershed Protection Committee (RRWPC). The Klamath and Eel Rivers and Clear Lake have had serious problems with toxic algae. We spotted something similar in 2009, but its presence was never publicly declared, even while environmental conditions in the lower river strongly favored such an outbreak. (See RRWPC’s 2009 Photo Project at website: )

County Health’s notice further states, “Algal blooms can look like green, blue-green, white, or brown foam, scum or mats floating on the water or along the shore. For safety, it is best to stay away from algal mats. If toxin is present, dogs and children are most likely to be affected. Children are vulnerable because they play in shoreline areas, drink more water than adults when swimming, and are of small body size. Dogs are especially vulnerable because they tend to drink more water and lick algae off their fur.” It’s not easy, fast, or inexpensive to positively identify toxic algae, so it’s better to avoid areas where large algae mats prevail.

For more information you can call the beach hotline at (707) 565-6552 or see Health Services website at: http://www.sonoma-county.ort/health/services/bluegreen.asp Call your veterinarian immediately if your pet gets suddenly very ill and of course children should be examined post haste if they become ill from a suspected exposure.

Phosphorus pollution contributes to the problem….There is excessive and persistent phosphorus pollution in the lower river, which in combination with high sediment deposition, warm water, and low flows can contribute to toxic algal outbreaks. Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) monitored lower river beaches weekly in 2014 (including Jenner Boat Ramp, Casini Ranch Beach, Villa Grande (Patterson Point), Monte Rio, and Vacation Beach, and documented that 100% of the test samples that included 26 samples per season between May 15th and October 14th at EACH location, exceeded EPA Maximum Daily Levels for Total Phosphorus.

Excessive phosphorus, often bound up with the soil, can enter the waterway as a result of soil erosion.  It can also enter waterways as a result of wastewater discharges, leakage from failing septic tanks, and wastewater irrigation runoff from urban and rural areas. Fertilizer applied to land and then irrigated with wastewater provides a double whammy if runoff occurs.

The Laguna and Russian River have both been identified as having excessive sediment pollution. While the Laguna de Santa Rosa was formally listed under the Clean Water Act as also impaired for phosphorus in 2002, the Russian River has yet to be listed, even though evidence provided by numerous photos and monitoring results should give weight to such a determination. A Clean Water Act listing could trigger studies of phosphorus sources, establish pollutant limits, and determine allowable and enforceable allocations for all who contribute to the problem.

Role of ‘low flow’ and specter of permanent changes to Decision 1610…..The Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) will soon release the long awaited environmental impact report (EIR) demanding a permanent 35% lowering of minimum summer flows in the lower river (from 125 cfs to 85 cfs during normal rain years). This document will be reviewed by the public and responsible agencies during a stated comment period. We assume that the Water Agency will then respond to comments, issue a Final EIR, receive approval from the Board of Supervisors at a public meeting, and then take it to the State Water Board to decide on authorization of the proposed change.

The proposed flow decrease was directed by the Biological Opinion (BO), entered into the Federal Register as law by National Marine Fisheries Service, and received no public review. SCWA was directed to carry out its requirements that were handed down on September 24, 2008. While the State Water Board is the only entity with jurisdiction to change Decision 1610, (State Law governing Russian River flows), and the final decision is theirs, the federal agency is quite clear that they expect to have this BO fully implemented. We are seeing signs that this may be a ‘done deal’ before the EIR is even released.

Biological Opinion ignores lower river….Nothing in the Biological Opinion protects the lower river between Forestville and Duncans Mills. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has jurisdiction over that part of the Endangered Species Act dealing with fish species who spend part of their life span in the ocean. In 1997, Russian River Coho and Steelhead species were placed on the Endangered Species List as ‘threatened’ (the State declared that Coho were actually ‘endangered’), and Chinook salmon were listed in 1999. Since Coyote and Warm Springs dams are partially managed by the Army Corps of Engineers, this gave NMFS the right to demand environmental assessments of dam and water supply operations in regard to fish impacts. Water supply facilities are upstream of Forestville, and everything downstream is not considered part of the operation.

Yet because the BO demanded the Estuary Project at Jenner, intended to create a fresh water lagoon for juvenile steelhead, it was decided that flows between Forestville and Duncans Mills were to be lowered first temporarily, and then permanently, in order to assist mouth closing for lagoon support each summer. As it turns out, summer minimum flows have been lowered regularly over the last seven years, but the project has yet to be successfully completed, and even with very low flows, the river mouth has stayed open most years until September.

Before any flows are permanently lowered, the public should demand major studies on algal toxicity, nutrient pollution, and impacts of low flow on the health of the lower river, including the threatened fish species. This should be done in conjunction with proposals to lower high river temperatures and control sediment pollution, about which almost nothing has yet occurred.

Contact Brenda at to stay informed on this issue.