Sonoma County Gazette, July 2016

Current water issues gain steam….Russian River issues have become as complex and voluminous as the digitalized world we live in, sometimes moving as fast as a bullet train or as slow as a slug, suffering breakdowns from time to time, but persevering none the less.  Some current water issues and activities include:

  • Emergency water conservation requirements relaxed by the State for North Coast.
  • Urban Water Management Plans about to be adopted and submitted to State.
  • Fish Flow Project EIR (renamed “Sonoma County Water Agency’s Fish Habitat Flows and Water Rights Project”) will address permanently lowering summer flows in Russian River to satisfy Biological Opinion.
  • Problematic Estuary Project (from Biological Opinion) serves as rationale for lowering river flows.
  • Regional Board initiates program to address cyanobacteria (toxic algae) in Russian River along with excessive phosphorus and temperature that cause persistent algal problems.

Emergency Water Supply Requirements relaxed by State…..During drought, water contractors had strict reporting requirements to demonstrate they conserved a pre-determined percentage (usually 15% to 25% depending on how much prior conservation had been accomplished, determined by comparing current water use to 2013 use)   The State’s May 2016 Emergency Regulation relaxed former requirements and now allow locally developed conservation standards.  There is a hitch however.  Districts must conduct ‘stress’ test that projects water needs for next three years comparable to past three drought years.

Urban Water Management Plan….This report to be submitted to State by all water districts having over 3000 customers and/or using over 3000 acre feet of water and was due July 1, 2016.  Most SCWA contractors produced plans.  UWMP’s typically describe water supply sources, historical demand, and comparison of supply and demand during normal, dry, multiple dry years.  The plans are not covered by California Environmental Quality Act and staff is not required to respond to public comments. Most district websites probably have plans posted for public view.

One contentious declaration in Santa Rosa’s Plan included projections assuming access to water amounts stated in their contract with SCWA (29,100 Acre Feet a year).  Unfortunately, the contract was written when the Agency anticipated a one third increase in water rights, which never occurred. It’s a complex story, but at the present time, Santa Rosa doesn’t really need the extra water anyway.  Our main concern is that they will use the high water availability to rationalize extensive new development that can become a very serious problem when the next big drought occurs and there are many more people on the system.   Rohnert Park for instance, has just broken ground on what will be about 1600 new homes.  Historically they have irrigated and over-irrigated vast amounts of wastewater on local landscapes to offset potable supply.

Fish flow project & Estuary Project to be considered in new EIR…..The Biological Opinion (BO) requires Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) to develop Environmental Impact Report (EIR) that proposes permanent flow changes to Decision 1610, State Law governing Russian River flows.  The EIR (due out this summer) will address impacts to lower river of a 40 to 50% decrease in minimum summer flows at Hacienda between May 15th and October 15th each year. Lower flows in upper river will also impact downstream flows, although it is unknown how much of Lake Mendocino’s supply ends up in lower river,  most of which appears to come from natural tributary flows and Lake Sonoma releases. Minimum summer flows are now maintained at about 75 cfs (normally 125 cfs) according to the State’s Temporary Urgency Change Order. If less is released, then more will remain stored and accessible to growth demands of SCWA contractors.

In the Estuary, SCWA wants to minimize river mouth breachings in order to provide rich habitat for threatened juvenile steelhead during mouth closures as they prepare for their ocean sojourn.  Maintaining the closure will supposedly be assisted by lower river flows. The project also requires creation of a structured channel at the mouth that will allow fresh river water to seep out, but not allow ocean water in, so as to create a mostly fresh water estuary, until of course, the mouth breaches naturally.

RRWPC examined Water Agency data on summer breachings over the last twenty years.  In all that time, there have been only two August breachings and five in July.  This implies that the project is unlikely to succeed in those months, which are the time of highest recreational use.  If low flows are required to be permanently lowered during this period, they are bound to affect the area’s recreation and economy, and also exacerbate conditions that could cause the proliferation of algae and possibly even toxic algae, which thrive in warm water with high levels of phosphorus and low flow, conditions that do and will exist if this project moves forward.

Furthermore, because of natural circumstances, the project has only been successfully completed once in the last seven years.  Conditions have seldom (almost never) been right for establishment and maintenance of the lagoon habitat.  Only recently the mouth closed and Water Agency staff created the necessary channel, and, as usual, the mouth reopened only hours after that.

Conditions prevail for extensive algal pollution…..There are many forms of algae in the river and one can see many different blooms from May through September and sometimes longer if warm weather prevails.  The river is considered impaired for temperature, which means it is always too warm in the summertime.  Prolific algae resided in the lower river for years. Toxic algae cannot be identified by merely looking at it, and non-toxic algae can also be harmful in other ways.

An EPA publication on potential harm from nutrient pollution (toxic and non-toxic) reads as follows:

“Too much nitrogen and phosphorus in the water causes algae to grow faster than ecosystems can handle. Significant increases in algae harm water quality, food resources and habitats, and decrease the oxygen that fish and other aquatic life need to survive. Large growths of algae….. can severely reduce or eliminate oxygen in the water,…..Some algal blooms are harmful to humans because they produce elevated toxins and bacterial growth that can make people sick if they come into contact with polluted water, consume tainted fish or shellfish, or drink contaminated water.”

 Toxic algae can and has caused a few dogs to die within an hour or two of ingesting the toxic form.  Humans can get ill but generally don’t die from contact.  This pathogen is often found in waters that have little flow and are very shallow (like our river if a 40% reduction in flows is approved), if the temperature is very warm as ours, and if excessive nutrients are present.  (Since about 2010, SCWA phosphorus data in the lower river has demonstrated almost 100% exceedances at all test locations.)

It is critical that this low flow project be closely watched.  We will keep you informed.