RRWPC Newsletter, October 2016

Dear RRWPC Supporter:

In 38 years of tracking water quality issues and reading environmental impact reports (EIRs), Russian River Watershed Protection Committee (RRWPC) recalls only one EIR that surpassed the size, weight and number of volumes of Sonoma County Water Agency’s (SCWA) Fish Habitat Flows and Water rights Project (Fish Flow Project), released on August 19th, 2016.

That was Santa Rosa’s Subregional Long Term Wastewater Project in late 1996, a 24 volume document that cost about $16 million, and proposed as the preferred project 20% wastewater discharges (5% being the previous limit.) into the Laguna de Santa Rosa and Russian River. Because the listing of three salmonid fish species as threatened occurred about that time, and due to much goading from the public, they ended up pumping most of the wastewater to the Geysers.

Document heavy in more ways than one….The Fish Flow Project EIR consists of seven volumes, weighs almost 22 pounds, sits almost a foot high when stacked on a table, and has over 3500 pages. The document recommends new trigger points for determining flow releases from Mendocino, proposes water permit updates, minimum stream flow requirements, and further discusses the Estuary Project, which had its own EIR about five years back. At least a third of the document is devoted to computer model analysis. View it at Sonoma County Water Agency’s website: http://www.scwa.ca.gov/fish-flow/  (Executive Summary in Volume I is easiest to read.)

The document slices the river into three parts, upper, lower, and Dry Creek. For us, the relevant sections involve impact analysis of lowering minimum streamflow during normal and dry rain years as measured at Hacienda.  The ONLY justification given for this recommendation is to accommodate the Estuary Project, which has been mostly unsuccessful for the last six years and of little help to the fish.  During critically dry drought periods, current law now allows flows to go as low as 35 cubic feet per second (cfs), and that will not change. In normal rain years, minimum flows will be reduced from 125 cfs to 70 cfs between May 15th and October 15th, although late spring natural tributary flows usually keep it over 125 cfs in May and June.  For moderate dry periods, summer flows will go from 85 cfs to 50 cfs, even though the Biological Opinion only requires reduction to 70 cfs. Permanently lowering minimum flows will cause unmitigated harm to the river environment, recreation, and the economy, and must not be allowed.

Toxic algae may proliferate with lower flows…..Our most serious concern, and the one that will be most potentially damaging, is stated in the document itself, in plain words and in open view: EIR: Chapter 1- Page 1-20: Impact 4.2-4: “Changes to minimum instream flows could result in a violation of water quality standards of waste discharge requirements or otherwise degrade water quality relating to bio-stimulatory substances in the Russian River.”  There is no mitigation available for this impact, except for maintaining higher flows. (Bio-stimulatory substances are nutrients such as phosphorus, of which there is an abundance as documented by SCWA’s extensive monitoring of the area.)

There are many forms of algae in the river and most are not harmful to humans or pets.  (See the Sonoma County Department of Public Health website for more information: http://www.sonoma-county.org/health/services/bluegreen.asp) Algae is not good for aquatic life however, as it can lower necessary oxygen from the water, and also provide a home for many viral and bacterial pathogens. We don’t know how long toxic algae has been in the river, but samples taken at Monte Rio Beach in 2009 by Regional Board staff indicated it was present at low levels, and summer river conditions are likely to make it worse, especially in late summer.  (2009 was a drought year when flows were very low. Toxic algae was also present in late 2015 when two dogs died and in early 2016.)  The river already suffers from excessively high temperatures in June through September, and is bound to get worse with lowered flows.  Also samples taken by Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) indicate that excessive phosphorus is consistently present at all lower beaches, and the combination of low flows, phosphorus, and high temperatures are likely to exacerbate the spread of these toxins.

When no mitigation is available for a significant impact, Directors of the Water Agency (Supervisors) would need to make a finding before approving the EIR that provides overriding considerations to justify decision to allow degradation. In other words, in spite of the potential harm, and in spite of the potential violation of water law, the project could move forward. It would be hard to fathom (but not impossible) that decision makers would justify selection of a dubious project over legally mandated clean water requirements.

We don’t see how the State Water Board could approve a change in flows that is in violation of State Law.  After this EIR is certified by SCWA Directors, it must go to State Water Board for change in water law that allows lower flows.  We don’t see how they can approve a flow change that would be in violation of our Basin Plan, but it may be a big battle convincing them.

VERY good news: EIR comment period extended to Valentine’s Day….In our August mailer we announced that the Fish Flow Project EIR included a 60-day comment period ending on October 17, 2016, and one open house would be held to inform public about the project.  Many of you sent letters and emails to Water Agency Directors (Supervisors) and staff, pleading for more time and requesting a real community meeting in our area.  Days after the September 13th hearing, held in a room filled with low flow protesters who sat there for 2.5 hours waiting for their turn to speak, (and did so eloquently), did Supervisors Carrillo and Gore propose an extension of the comment period to February 14, 2017.  On October 4th, Directors/Supervisors formally approved the extension and new hearing date was set for Thursday, November 17th at 6 pm at Guerneville Vets Hall on 1st St.   Please mark your calendar and plan to attend!

State Board Protest Letter….In 2010, the State Water Board asked for protest letters on a prior version of this project.  Hundreds of you responded.  Many of you who had submitted protest letter in 2010 received a letter recently saying that since the project has changed, new protest letters (regarding changes to Russian River flows) would be required.  We have included a sample letter with this mailer and ask that you sign it and mail to addressee on the front.  You must also send copy to Water Agency (see bottom of target letter) We ask that you add your personal river concerns on the back and make a copy of both sides for your records.  We would appreciate copies of your letter if you don’t mind sending us one (to RRWPC, P.O. Box 501, Guerneville, CA 95446).  This letter is for everyone to submit and it does not matter if you didn’t send a prior letter. 

RRWPC needs your continued support….RRWPC has been working on this project with attorney Michael Lozeau. Michael helped us challenge the Estuary Project in 2012 and has been studying the low flow proposal and will submit comments on the EIR for RRWPC.  His fees are fair, but working with this complex document will take many hours of his time. We will also need to hire a few experts to corroborate our views on negative impacts to the river.  All sized donations are appreciated.  If you can afford to give generously, it would really help.  We depend exclusively on our mailers for funds.   We have PayPal set up on our website at www.rrwpc.org for those who prefer that mode of contribution.  Thank you for caring about the Russian River.