Sonoma County Gazette, January 2011

Jenner Estuary Project: SCWA Releases EIR on Project to Control River’s Mouth

by Brenda Adelman

Who in Sonoma County has not witnessed the magnificent splendor of crashing waves at the merging of the Russian River and the sea?  Who has not watched the tides wash along the sand, painting brief and ever changing images before immediately disappearing again? Who has not viewed the chubby new seal pups snuggling at their mother’s side, or the gulls joining in wide swoops as they dance in the sky, proof that Mother Nature’s artistry is unmatched and her ordering of the elements, profound.

Natural environment under siege….
This magical spot in Jenner is one of the natural wonders that makes Sonoma County such a wondrous place. Yet gradually our earthly heritage is being chipped away.  Gravel-mining projects that tear up habitat, water use practices that cause severe shortages at critical times, ocean conditions that threaten many life forms, riparian destruction that causes water temperatures to rise, bacteria to grow, and algae to form, are all having a detrimental impact on disappearing fish.

Don’t we all appreciate fish, and salmonids especially?  Their health is a prime indicator that all is well with both our ocean and river environments.  Unfortunately, it is clear that the habitat is in trouble.  Given that this estuary project to maintain a closed lagoon is being pushed through in piecemeal fashion, it will not address the big problem, but may instead create new problems for salmonids and other species.  The Estuary Project as described here, is unlikely to accomplish the goals of the Biological Opinion, the source of the project.

Low Flow impacts ignored….
The design of structural barriers (man made dunes) to keep the river’s mouth closed all summer is the central focus of the “Russian River Estuary Management Project Draft Environmental Impact Report” (DEIR). The DEIR considers several alternatives for construction of the barrier, with the “Reduced Project Alternative” considered the environmentally superior project.  What is NOT studied is lowered flows from Dry Creek to Jenner, which NMFS has determined to be necessary for project feasibility.  That will be studied in a separate environmental review, not to be released for at least 1.5 years.

On December 15, 2010, the Board of Supervisors authorized the release of this Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) document.   You can purchase a CD of the Estuary Project DEIR for $10 by contacting Jessica Martini-Lamb at: Public comments are due on February 14, 2011.  A hearing will be held in Jenner on Tuesday, January 18, 2011, at the Jenner Community Hall at 6 pm (behind the fire house).  Please try to attend.

Estuary Project and low flow must be studied together….
The Californian Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires that the whole of a project be considered in one EIR.  This DEIR claims that its major purpose is to address the requirements of the Biological Opinion (BO), issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in September, 2008.  The BO requires that SCWA apply to the State for a change in minimum flows that would be reduced from 125 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 70 cfs throughout the lower river. Until a permanent change is made, SCWA must apply for low flow on a temporary annual basis.  These annual applications can be repeated indefinitely and are not subject to environmental review.

Environmental review of flow changes will be considered separately, as mentioned earlier.  Several major studies have been conducted to support that later document, but the results have not even been released to the Regional Water Quality Board or the public.  It is likely that the information will be withheld until after the comment period closes for the Estuary DEIR, even though the two projects are closely linked and should really be treated as one.

Jenner properties subject to flood….
The major purpose for lowering Russian River flows is to prevent flooding of a few properties in the Estuary while still keeping the mouth closed.  SCWA has historically breached (opened) the estuary at levels from 4.5’ to 9’ as measured at the Visitor’s Center, which is the lowest structure.  It floods at 9’.  The DEIR concludes that 78 properties would be inundated at 9’, but only nine of those parcels contain structures that would be affected.  Seven of the structures are boat docks or ramps and only two structures subject to flooding at 9’ are buildings.  The preferred alternative expects to manage levels at 8’ however, so these two buildings would also not be affected.  One could conclude that “low flow” serves no purpose whatsoever.

Uncertain correlation between opening mouth and low flows….
In August, 2009, flows at Hacienda near Forestville averaged 63 cfs (lower than the proposed 70 cfs) and yet the river mouth remained open during that entire month.  In fact, over the ten year period since 2000, no matter what the flows, the mouth was breached only once each in July (2008) and August (2004).  June saw 4 breachings (2000, 2002, 2003, 2009) over the same ten years, September had 4 (2000, 2005, 2008, 2009).  Most of those times, the mouth remained open.

In 2010, flows at Hacienda averaged 260 cfs for the entire summer period, even though the State Water Board had issued a Temporary Urgency Flow Order that called for 70 cfs at Hacienda and Dry Creek.  In spite of significant reductions in dam releases by SCWA, water from the tributaries and groundwater filled the local streams anyway.  In other words, a rainy winter and spring appears to override any manmade controls of flow.  It’s possible that ocean conditions may be more responsible for the mouth’s opening and closing than river flows.

Proposed lowered flows, if approved by the State Water Board, will exacerbate very serious water quality problems in the lower river, particularly algal blooms.  There is some concern that toxic blue green algae will take hold.  Lowered flows would have a major impact on recreation and the local economy, not to mention all the other species that rely on a healthy river system to survive.  Yet none of this will be considered until after this project is approved.  Please demand that both projects be considered together (Jenner Project and flow alterations).

RRWPC is planning a target letter on this issue to send to County officials.  Please contact us at for more information.  We also hope to have the letter on the Sonoma County Gazette website soon after the paper is published.

Brenda Adelman has been head of RRWPC since it was founded in 1980.  She can be reached at