RRWPC Letter to BOS, 11-17-2015: Dry Creek Habitat Enhancement Project

Re: Nov. 17, 2015 Agenda: Item #10: Dry Creek Habitat Enhancement Project

RRWPC provided written comments on the Draft EIR for the Dry Creek Project. We also spoke publicly of our concerns at the Public Hearing for this Project. We have read staff’s response to comments, and we are sorry to say that many were not adequately responsive to our queries. Nevertheless, we state our concerns here as this project is closely linked to the Fish Flow Project and Estuary Project, all of which derive from the Biological Opinion. Formerly we expressed objections to the piecemeal approach utilized by SCWA on the Estuary Project and feel similar perimeters have been drawn in the Dry Creek DEIR to prevent scrutiny of downstream impacts.

Decision 1610 states, (page 4) “The Russian River Project is a water diversion and storage project operated by SCWA to furnish water from the Russian River, the East Fork Russian River, and Dry Creek for domestic, industrial, municipal, irrigation and recreational uses.” (emphasis added) Clearly, this acknowledges the need for SCWA to consider recreational values and downstream drinking water supply needs, as well as their own need to assure water contractors of reliable Russian River supplies. And yet this DEIR denies any relationship of the project to downstream flows.

Rather it continually asserts that only habitat improvements in Dry Creek are relevant and intended to serve the function of slowing the water so that current flow levels can be maintained and juvenile fish be protected from speeding water. It asserts there is no impact to Russian River flow, as it will not change the amount of water entering the river, only the speed at which it travels through Dry Creek. It also takes no responsibility for maintaining flows in the lower river from Lake Sonoma. Because they claim that nothing will change, they assume there will be no impacts to lower river flows. Maybe that is true, and maybe not, but no information is provided to address our concerns.

This last summer, the lower Russian River was subjected to the posting of beach warnings about toxic algae blooms, exposure to which caused one dog to die. These warnings were posted most of the summer on many lower river beaches. Low flows are a significant factor in algal growth, and also promote the bioaccumulation and bioavailability of toxins, nutrients, and pathogens in the water body, causing aquatic life and humans to experience much greater health risk in summer.

For the last seven years, as required by the Biological Opinion, Temporary Urgency Change Petitions (TUCP) have been filed by SCWA to the State Board requesting a lowering of flows as measured at Hacienda, as low as 35 cfs. This last year there were two requests, with the second approved for 50 cfs. In each of these petitions, it was proclaimed that no harm would come to the river or the people who use it, as a result of this action. The warning signs apparently did not count as ‘causing harm’ and were ignored by the State Board when they issued the TUC Order allowing this decrease. Similarly, over the last several years, monitoring results consistently indicated excessive phosphorus in the lower river, and combined with on-going high temperature impairment, guaranteed that such lowering of flows was going to have negative impacts.

We need adequate flows for recreation and drinking water. We expect flows to be addressed in Fish Flow DEIR, but we also suspect that this project establishes a scenario allowing water to be saved by decreasing minimum flows, that could then be allocated to their contractors for new development. Our concerns were given short shrift by the following EIR response: (P. 3-2: Final EIR)

As noted on page 1-3 of the Draft Environmental Impact Report, the Russian River Biological Opinion requires habitat enhancement of six miles of Dry Creek to improve summer rearing conditions for coho salmon and steelhead while allowing the Water Agency to maintain the existing flow range in Dry Creek of 110 to 175 cfs for water supply purposes. The volume of flow, as measured in cubic feet per second (cfs), would not change from existing conditions as a result of the proposed project.”

Back up materials for Board Agenda Item #10 for the Nov. 17th meeting states (page 2), “Current summer flows in the creek range from 105 to 175 cfs.” Why the discrepancy? I examined actual data of releases from Lake Sonoma between December 1, 2014 and November 13, 2015. (chart attached to email) Chart numbers are taken from Lakes and Rivers Section of Press Democrat’s weather page. Since we obtained newspaper a little less than half of the days published, the full set of entries were not included, but since numbers provided are well disbursed and fairly repetative, this is probably not a significant issue.

We had assumed the range of actual Dry Creek flows was 110 to 175 cfs as represented in the DEIR, but came up with the following results. There were a total of 153 entries for entire 11.5 month period through Nov. 13, 2015. Of those, there were 137 days under 110 cfs (89.5%). There were 9 days at 110 cfs, 2 days at 114 cfs, 2 days at 116 cfs, 1 day at 121 cfs, 1 at 133, and 1 at 143. Therefore, only 10.5% of the data falls within range noted in DEIR.  Then it occurred to us that we had heard for a very long time that NMFS advocated 90 cfs as the desirable flow for Dry Creek. When did the 110 to 175 cfs get determined, and were flows ever that high? (except perhaps during major storm events)

Under this scenario, by successfully implementing the Dry Creek Habitat Restoration Project, SCWA would then be able to release water at much higher flows than what has actually been released most days this last year, ostensibly without fear of harm to threatened fish species and not be concerned about heavy fines and penalties for ‘takings’. It also would allow water contractors to avoid paying for a grossly expensive pipe to carry water from Lake Sonoma to the Russian River in order to quench the thirst of the ever-growing urban areas to the east and south, including half of the system that is not even in the Russian River watershed. We can’t help but wonder whether NMFS traded implementation of this project for the possibility of HIGHER flows than what had been previously requested?

There was no mention that lower river property owners have helped and still help to pay for Lake Sonoma, yet in effect, lower river property owners can be cut off from that water if Fish Flow project is approved. Because more water would be released from Lake Sonoma with the success of this project, and because flows may be required to remain below 80 cfs at Hacienda, and because water releases from Lake Mendocino will probably not even make it down to the lower river, (We had asked that question of Jay Jasperse, SCWA’s lead engineer, and he said it was impossible to answer that question.) that would mean the extra water would be available for new growth, which would indeed also have major impacts on the lower Russian River. Then the need for Lake Sonoma water will become more critical to urban contractors, especially during drought. It is interesting to contemplate what will happen to the threatened fish species if they had to swim twenty miles through a low flowing contaminated mess of a river?

The “Lake Mendocino Water Supply Reliability Evaluation Report” makes a very strong statement that seems to validate our concerns (pages 17-18):

In summary, the analysis presented in this report indicates that Lake Mendocino’s water supply reliability has decreased in recent years, especially since the PVP operations were changed after 2006. Future growth projections (high and low) for the areas that rely on Lake Mendocino for their water supply indicate modest growth through 2045. Even with modest growth however, Lake Mendocino’s water supply reliability is expected to continue to further decline, both under scenarios that assume future wet and dry climate conditions. A scenario evaluating the effect of having no PVP diversion in the future shows that under that scenario, Lake Mendocino would go dry at some during a majority of years (over 60%). This would have significant impacts to downstream water users, ecosystems, and groundwater aquifers. Without water in Lake Mendocino to release downstream, river reaches could end up with little or no surface water flow. The loss of surface water flow would result in the loss of aquatic habitat for listed and native fish, impacts to riparian and wetland habitats, for flora and fauna, as well as loss of recreation opportunities in the reservoir and along the river. Water users dependent on surface water diversions would experience significant impacts to their ability to divert water. In addition, groundwater levels in the alluvial aquifer of the Russian River would decline, impacting production from many groundwater wells.”

Everywhere we look, in every policy we consider, it is apparent that the lower river is to be short-changed of the flow badly needed to protect water quality, fisheries, recreational use, and also drinking water supplies for those who live downstream.