May 2010: Temporary Low Flow Request

LETTERS NEEDED RE Temporary Emergency Petition to lower flows

May, 2010

Dear RRWPC Supporter:

THE RUSSIAN RIVER NEEDS YOUR HELP….AGAIN!! Please send enclosed letters to State Water Board and Sonoma County Water Agency. Also, feel free to make copies and have others sign and send as well.  (These are different letters from the one we circulated in our last mailer.)

Picture this: the reservoirs are fuller than they have been in years and everyone is sighing relief at the expectation of having normal water supplies this year.  You are grateful that this will be a summer when you can water your garden without feeling guilty about it.  But no, sorry, the lower river will probably get low flow…..again!

As we write this letter, the Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) is still waiting to hear from the State Water Board about a Temporary Emergency Petition to lower flows for this summer between May 1 and October 15, 2010.  The Biological Opinion (BO), which we discussed at length in our last mailer, required that they file the Petition.   In fact, the BO requires that they file for a temporary petition every year until the permanent change to Decision 1610, that we also described previously, is approved.

On April 4th, SCWA submitted another Emergency Petition to the State Board asking to maintain a flow of 70 cubic feet per second (cfs) at the Hacienda Bridge, with actual flows going as high as 85 cfs at times. (SCWA had filed “emergency” petitions in 2002, 2004, 2007, and 2009.) Because of the “emergency” status, there is no requirement for environmental review (i.e., examination of environmental impacts).  In fact, the Emergency Petition boldly alleges that low flows will occur, “…without injury to any lawful user of water”, and, “…..without unreasonable effect upon fish, wildlife, and other instream beneficial uses.”

RRWPC identifies problems with both temporary and permanent petitions…..
RRWPC recently submitted 25 pages and 32 attachments to the State Board commenting on the Permanent Change Petition, which you can find on our website ( under the topic, “Commentaries”.   We identified the following major themes.

The Biological Opinion theorizes that a closed lagoon will provide valuable habitat for juvenile steelhead populations. National Marine Fisheries Service’s (NMFS) main interest is to form a barrier at the river mouth to maintain a closed lagoon every year between May 15 and October 15, a time when the Estuary is usually open.  It is unclear how a closed lagoon will be sustained in this dynamic environment, or what impacts will be to other species such as harbor seals, who usually leave when the mouth closes.

NMFS promotes the idea of a sand barrier as the first priority for establishing the closed lagoon, which is expected to provide important rearing habitat for juvenile steelhead. A second possibility being considered is removal of all or part of the jetty.  The final option is to purchase or raise a small number of houses out of the flood plain so flooding would not be a factor in closing the lagoon.  In a recent meeting with NMFS staff, RRWPC was told that in this latter case, lower flows might not be necessary at all.  Nevertheless, the second two options would only be considered if the first one fails.  It would take many years to determine this, and we may have low flow for a very long time.

Low flow can also result from water drawdown by agriculture during the summer months, significant decreases in Eel River diversions, and more frequent drought conditions due to global warming.  Yet, since the 1970’s at least, the MOUTH HAS STAYED OPEN MOST OF THE TIME during most flow conditions.  Anticipated results of this project are unknown, and the whole endeavor is viewed as an “experiment”.  Little attention has been paid to potential “collateral damage” that may result.

When RRWPC met with NMFS representatives, authors of the BO, they emphasized the experimental nature of the Estuary Project.  They also ascertained the importance of assuring the protection of water quality, and expressed uncertainty about the exact minimum flow needed to keep the mouth closed. They assured us that numerous scenarios needed to be studied before a final flow limit could be determined, while consistently requiring the same specific low flow levels all along: 70 to 85 cfs during normal rain years. They have not established a scientific method to consider effects at different levels.  Their recommended flow is far below the normal of 125 cfs we are used to.  (For many years, flows fluctuated between 150 cfs and 200 cfs and sometimes higher.) NMFS primary goal is to maintain a closed lagoon, no matter the consequences.

Unintended consequences of low flow….
NMFS has also claimed that they share our concerns about the potential for unintended consequences of permanently lowered flows, such as major impacts to water quality and recreation. They admit that there is a huge complexity of issues affecting the lower river that ideally should be addressed before instituting this very significant change. (These include: an assortment of floating and unattached algae, Ludwigia, pathogen pollution, high temperatures, sediment problems, unregulated chemicals in wastewater, concentration  of pollutants, economic and recreational issues, etc.)  While environmental review would be required for the permanent change, there is no review of impacts from “emergency” temporary changes.  Last year’s emergency could be justified by drought, which is no longer our situation.

RRWPC’s recent protest focused on numerous river problems. Canoeists complained of fixed and floating, black and green and blue-green algae pervasive in the river last summer. Ludwigia is outcropping everywhere.  Many report that water quality conditions are much worse in the last several years, and flows are much lower than they used to be.  In speaking with Regional Board staff recently, we learned that nutrient monitoring conducted by SCWA last summer was totally inadequate due to excessive detection limits, that the Regional Board is gearing up to study nutrients in the Laguna and river, set numerical standards, seek a 303(d) listing under the Clean Water Act, and eventually change the Basin Plan to address the new standards.

Please tell us your stories about the river….
You may submit your personal stories about the river, which can be written on the back of the letter. (Please remember to date.)   It would be important to tell whether any person or pet you know had health problems resulting from contact from the river. Also, please identify water quality changes you have noticed from prior years (even if it was a long time ago).  What did the water look like, how has it changed, and what did you see floating in and around? Where in the river were you located after which the problem you experienced or witnessed occurred? Please share whatever details you can.

RRWPC needs your help!
RRWPC has been working harder than ever lately.  Because of the slow economy in addition to just coming out of tax season, donations have been more sparse than usual.  We operate on a slim budget, with myself working with little or no compensation of late, and we really appreciate all donations, large and small.  Please give as generously as you can, especially if you have not donated in awhile. If you prefer donating electronically, you can access PayPal at   We hope to hear from you soon.  Email us at with questions.