RRWPC Newsletter, April 2017

Good news to report about DEIR comments….
The Regional Water Quality Control Board, along with the State Water Board, to our surprise, joined forces to submit a 77-page comment letter on Sonoma County Water Agency’s (SCWA) Fish Flow Draft Environmental Impact Report (FF DEIR). In their introduction, the State credits the large number of protest letters from the community as being a causal factor in this effort. They note (page 4), “It is expected, based on the complexity of the proposed changes {requested by State Board}, and the volume of protests already received, that these petitions will likely require several years of processing time….” (petitions for flow changes and other items)

Their detailed comments called out serious deficiencies of the document. (Comments can be found on our website, along with RRWPC’s comments at www.rrwpc.org ) They specified many required items to be addressed before reduced flows would be granted and other elements of the proposed project authorized. They called for the document to not only fully address environmental issues, but public trust issues as well. (Public trust resources include wildlife, fish, streambeds, riparian areas, recreation, etc.) In spite of that, SCWA’s General Manager recently informed water contractors that the response to comments should be complete by the end of this year. Based on what we read, there are so many requested changes that the whole document should be revised and recirculated, although it does not appear that SCWA agrees.

Here are some major concerns expressed in the State’s comments:
• Potential risks to water quality (such as toxic algae, dissolved oxygen, warmer temperatures and pathogen concentrations) must be fully addressed. Also, a range of projects should be considered to avoid, minimize, and mitigate potential impacts while maintaining project goals.
• It is important that this effort involve careful balancing of beneficial uses such as drinking water, fisheries, recreation, etc.)
• The Regional Board recommends an adaptive management consultation process to SCWA that “…instream flows can be modified as necessary to respond to instream water quality, public health, and fisheries/aquatic life needs, based on available monitoring and assessment data and information.” These might require multi-year monitoring efforts. RRWPC is not sure how this would work, but we do want to see it developed. It is likely to be better than what is currently proposed, with flow decreases that do nothing for the fish but adversely impacts recreation and water quality.
Some other comments:
• SCWA is requesting extended time to fulfill their water rights allocation (permit for current allocation had run out). State Board staff commented that SCWA appears to ASSUME that the extension would be granted and they don’t address alternatives planned should it NOT be extended.

Yet, even with uncertain water rights, some County Supervisors are pushing for as many as 3400 new homes in Sonoma County over the next five years. Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, and Healdsburg are all seeking more building opportunities in the near future. There is a housing shortage in our area, but most housing being built is too expensive for those who need a place to live. The developers don’t like to build low cost housing for obvious reasons and two bedroom apartments are currently going for about $2000 to $2200 in Santa Rosa (too expensive for young people just getting started or older people on fixed incomes). In the meantime, water conservation savings will be used for new construction, and when the next drought comes, new conservation may not be possible. In our area, Sweetwater Springs Water District may not be able to draw water out of the river during severe drought periods according to staff.
• The document does not describe how they determine the level or threshold that impacts become significant.
• To determine baseline conditions for comparing the proposed project to actual current conditions in order to determine impacts, SCWA included some low flow years in which Temporary Urgency Change Petitions had been granted. This gave skewed result.
• DEIR states that toxic algae is a significant and unmitigatible impact, but does nothing to evaluate the problem, even though a study was available, written by SCWA’s own staff, (Jeff Church) describing algae and toxic algae issues and presence in the lower river. (Taken from the Estuary Report of 2015 and released in February, 2016.)

RRWPC comments on hydrologic index….
Part of the Fish Flow DEIR addresses the adjustment of the hydrologic index, which is the means by which flows are determined. SCWA proposes to cut our minimum flows from 125 to 70 cfs in normal rain years and from 85 to 50 cfs in so called dry years. Yet the lower river gets very little flow from Lake Mendocino, at least none that they document. Most of our flow comes from creek runoff and from Lake Sonoma, which is closer and 3 times bigger than Lake Mendocino.

RRWPC is advocating for a second hydrologic index at Lake Sonoma. In other words, develop a project alternative that keeps the lower river as it was, but lowers flows dependent on Lake Mendocino (above confluence of Dry Creek and Russian River). The main rationale for lowering flows in lower river is to help implement the estuary management plan, which has been an almost total failure over the last 7 years (Please read our comments on our website for more details.)

Occidental’s sewage trucking project defeated…..
Because of the huge public outcry, Fifth District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins saved the day by insisting that a new solution be found for Occidental’s sewage (The plan was to truck the waste in 30’, 4000 pound trucks down Bohemian Highway to Russian River County Sanitation District. It looks like the much closer Graton treatment plant actually wants the product.) Many details need to be worked out, and hopefully this will buy time for the community to find a permanent solution to a 20-year problem. We have our fingers crossed that it works.

Email addresses needed for better communication…
We still encourage people to share their emails with us. Approximately 50% of our supporters can now receive information from us between mailers. We understand that some of you don’t have email, but RRWPC communicates by email, website, and bi-monthly letters only. We would like you all to receive the most current information.

RRWPC needs your continued support….
RRWPC doesn’t pay for an office and Brenda does most of the group’s work on a semi-volunteer basis. Your donations go far with our group. If you can afford to give generously, it would help, but all sized donations are appreciated. We are a small group, but depend exclusively on mailers for funds. PayPal is set up on our website at www.rrwpc.org for those who prefer that mode of contribution. Many of you have supported us for numerous years and we are extremely grateful.

These would include:
First, the good news…..
Before the March 10th comment deadline for the low flow Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR), the executive officer of the Regional Water Quality Control Board informed us that their staff was coordinating with State Water Board staff to write comments on the DEIR. For over six years, RRWPC had been lobbying hard for the Regional Board to be involved, yet never dreamed that the State Water Board would also write comments. (State Water Board oversees statewide river flow limits, water rights permits and other issues related to water supply along with drinking water program. The Regional Board is in charge of protecting water quality, which includes writing discharge permits and implementing compliance programs. There is only one State Water Board but there are nine regions in California. We are in North Coast Region.)
The short story is that two State Board Staff and one Regional Board staff provided 77 pages of detailed comments on the Fish Flow DEIR. Many of the comments pointed out inadequacies of the document and mandated that the DEIR not only address environmental issues, but public trust issues as well. (The State Water Board would be the agency to grant flow changes in water permits, extension of time current permits are valid, authorize new Hydrologic Index which describes circumstances, limits to specific flow levels to be achieved, and more.

The FF DEIR had identified a low flow impact that is our strongest argument for NOT lowering flows in the lower Russian River. Significant and unavoidable impacts from biostimulatory substances (algae) could cause violations of State water law. Minimum flows were to be decreased, as measured at Hacienda by 44% in summer in order to facilitate the Estuary Management Project which was required by the Biological Opinion, but which has not been successfully implemented
The Regional Board, in coordination with County Public Health Department had been in close communication regarding the toxic algae (cyanobacteria) issue and had been working together since the dog died from ingesting the toxin in 2015. There is also a state-wide program dealing with this issue, since it has become a problem in numerous areas statewide.
RRWPC submitted our own 24-page comment letter along with a separate letter from our attorney that addressed problematic low flow summer issues in the lower river, that would result from this proposal to cut minimum flows to 70 cfs between May 15-Otober 15 every year. Furthermore, we were in frequent contact with the State staff person regarding the letter writing campaign; the same woman who was also writing many of the comments in the State’s letter to Sonoma County Water Agency regarding the FF DEIR. The outcome was that 2 State Water Board staff combined with 1 Regional Board staff and submitted a 77-page comment letter of their own; and proved to be the best comment letter from any public agency that we had ever read. (RRWPC’s comment letters, our attorney’s and the State’s letter are all on our website at www.rrwpc.org .

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.