The Russian River, flowing in a southern and then western direction, drains 1,485 square miles of Sonoma and Mendocino counties in Northern California and is 110 miles long. Its headwaters are about five miles northeast of Ukiah in Mendocino. The northern part of the river receives some of its flow from the Eel River through the Potter Valley Project. More details describing the physical location can be found on Wikipedia at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_River_(California)
Significant tributaries in Sonoma County portion include Dry Creek, Mark West Creek (including the Laguna de Santa Rosa), Green Valley Creek, Fife Creek, Hulbert Creek, Dutch Bill Creek, and Austin Creek.
Two dams are jointly managed (i.e., controlled releases) by the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) and the Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA): Lake Mendocino/Coyote Dam and Lake Sonoma/Warm Springs Dam. ACOE manages the dams for flood control roughly November through March and sometimes April, depending on dam levels and rain patterns. During late spring, summer, and early fall SCWA manages the dams for recreation, fish flows, and water supply, although they downplay the recreation part. Lake Sonoma capacity is 381,000 acre feet and considered to have a three-year supply. Lake Mendocino has 116,500 AF capacity and serves the Potter Valley area down to Healdsburg. RRWPC is advocating for a hydrologic index for Lake Sonoma that would manage flows with the lower river in mind. The State Water Board determines flows through water permit process, and the Regional Water Quality Board regulates water quality and wastewater discharges.
SCWA also manages the water system that provides wholesale supplies to 8 major contractors and a major subcontractor representing about 600,000 people in Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Windsor, Cotati, Petaluma*, Sonoma*, Valley of the Moon*, North Marin Water District*, and Marin Municipal Water District* (latter under separate contract). SCWA contractors on average use about 55,000 acre feet (325,000 gallons per AF) of river water annually. About half of their water sales go to out-of-watershed customers. (Water Districts with * after name) SCWA’s facilities are in the Wohler area outside of Forestville and include pumps, diversion facilities, wells and Raney collectors, a rubber dam, infiltration ponds, and more. See their website for details: http://www.scwa.ca.gov/ (You can also see an interactive map of their water system.
They currently have questionable water rights that allow them to take as much as 75,000 AF a year, but their permits are not up to date. Part of their DEIR coverage was an appeal to upgrade and certify those rights which they addressed in the DEIR. The State Water Board commented that they should not have assumed they would be granted the extension on those rights and should have offered an alternative in their place in case they were not. This issue is currently in limbo and will be addressed during the water rights process with the state board.
Over the last 100 years there have been many alterations to the watershed. Gravel mining, agriculture, timber harvest, wastewater discharges, (For years, Santa Rosa discharged and irrigated about 8 billion gallons of wastewater into the Laguna de Santa Rosa and the Russian River.) crop conversions, mining (especially mercury), dairy use, etc. The river has been listed as impaired with sediments, high temperatures, bacteria, etc. and we are working to get it listed for phosphorus as well. The Laguna is impaired by those pollutants and also excessive nutrients, mercury, and dissolved oxygen. Urban development and riparian removal is responsible for much (and maybe most) of the pollution. In spite of altered conditions, the BO dictates that the river go back to ‘natural’ conditions that occurred over 100 years ago.
Between 1985 and 2004 RRWPC fought Santa Rosa over their extensive wastewater discharges and attempts to greatly expand their discharge system (into Russian River) for new growth. While we cannot claim credit for their ultimate choice of pumping their wastewater up to the Geysers, it was our constant battles over Russian River discharge expansion projects that held them up until the Coho, Chinook, and Steelhead were listed in the late 1990’s and the Geyser’s needed more water and made Santa Rosa an offer they could not refuse. Santa Rosa became aware of the potential for new regulations.
In late 2004 the Geysers project went on line and the Russian River was saved from extensive wastewater discharges into the future. During the draught, Santa Rosa seldom discharges anything, or no more than about 100 million gallons. Before Geysers, they averaged 4-6 billion gallons discharged a year. This last year, because of all the rain, they discharged about 1 billion. If not for the Geysers, they probably would have discharged at least 6 billion gallons this last year. Needless to say, those discharges, when they occur, also become part of our river flow and possibly our water supply. But they occur in winter when flows are very high and dilution great and the risk much less.
Brief History of Low Flow Proposal…
Late 1990’s: National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) under NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) listed Coho salmon, Chinook salmon, and Steelhead as ‘threatened’ (under Endangered Species Act). State Fish and Wildlife (SF&W) listed Coho as ‘endangered’. These listings triggered initiation of a consultation process between NMFS and SF&W, ACOE, and SCWA. SCWA came under consultation because they were partners with ACOE, a federal agency.
This process required the preparation of a Biological Assessment (BA) by SCWA, which would assess all activities related to ACOE and SCWA practices that might cause harm to the above-mentioned species of concern. This process included minimal public review and took almost ten years to complete. The BA was completed around 2006 and submitted to NMFS. They studied it and wrote a responding Biological Opinion (BO about 380 pages) that described the ways in which the fish were being harmed and directions on what to do in order to stop that from happening. It was released to the public on September 24, 2008. It was not peer reviewed and the public was given no opportunity for input, and yet had the standing of federal law. It would have taken a huge effort to challenge and one which we didn’t have resources to tackle. BO can be found on SCWA’s website in section under Biological Opinion.
Among other things, the BO gave directions to permanently change flows in the entire river, and, in the interim while waiting for the lengthy process of changing water rights, annual Temporary Urgency Change Petitions would appeal to State Water Board every year for temporary lowering. The upper river had a different rationale for change than the lower river that I will not address here. Also, there were directions for habitat improvements in Dry Creek which we address only briefly. Our primary concern, and our comments to SCWA and the State, just address conditions in the lower river from the confluence of Dry Creek with the Russian River down to the mouth at Jenner. (Our comments can be found on our website at www.rrwpc.org )
Low Flow Requirements and Rationale for lower river…
NMFS had an idea for the lower river to improve habitat for the steelhead before they start their long ocean sojourn. They really didn’t appear to care much about managing the lower river but for their concern about creating a project. The project period only went from May 15 to October 15 each year; they had few concerns about other seasons for lower river other than having enough flow in late October for fall migration.
The project was called the Estuary Management Project. They wanted to create a lagoon at the mouth that would provide fresh water habitat for juvenile fish during their growing period each summer. They thought that less river flow entering the Estuary would help sustain the lagoon so as to not force open the mouth. At the same time, they also had to prevent flooding of a few properties in the Estuary such as the State’s Visitor’s Center. (They talked about raising structures but no one ever made a serious attempt to study it.) Lower flows could sustain the amount of time the lagoon could rise without necessitating breaching the mouth to prevent flooding.
The BO claimed that the natural condition of the Estuary was to have a closed mouth every summer and if river flows were lowered, and a special channel was constructed at the mouth so it would not reopen easily, then that could occur. The BO came out towards the end of 2008. SCWA spent most of 2009 getting about a dozen permits from various agencies to implement the project. The project was not well defined because no one knew exactly what would happen with mouth closures or the best way to address channel construction. It was really an experimental project. (More details in writings on Estuary Project EIR comments and Fish Flow DEIR comments on RRWPC website.)
In 2010 SCWA had a one or two week closing in June and they actually constructed a channel which lasted for one week before the mouth breached naturally. Since that time, there have been numerous attempts, but for different reasons, none of them worked. In our Fish Flow DEIR comments, we go into detail about what happened and why the project should be rejected and current flows maintained. One reason is that it’s not the river that closes the mouth with low flows, but the ocean activity that pushes sand up on the beach to cause a barrier to the river. In July and August they have the fewest mouth openings of the year because the ocean is mostly calm. In May and June, low flow is impossible because natural runoff from the tributaries usually keeps the flows above current minimum levels. While there have been some closures in June and July, for various reasons, SCWA was either unable to implement the project for some reason, or their attempts failed.
SCWA applied to the State Water Board for a Temporary Urgency Change Order since 2008, allowing them to implement low flow until Oct. 15th. This means that when the flow goes below current legal limits (125 cfs as measured at Hacienda Bridge), SCWA would not have to add flow from reservoir to keep it at that level. It could go down to 70 cfs (called for in BO), a 44% decrease before making any releases for the lower river. That water would remain in the reservoir (mostly Lake Sonoma) and be available for other uses when needed. Very often the river stays above 125 cfs through June, July, and sometimes the entire summer. For example, on June 9, 2017, the flow at Hacienda was 437 cfs. We guess it won’t get down to 125 cfs this month and possibly not next month either.
Involved Agencies and complex process…
Sonoma County Water Agency: Supervisors serve as Board of Directors
• Responsible for preparing Environmental Impact Reports for projects
• SCWA completed multi-volume Biological Assessment about 2006 or ‘07
• Estuary Project EIR completed in 2012 and litigated by RRWPC, settled in 2014
• SCWA separated Estuary Project DEIR from Low Flow Project, thus avoiding some impact analysis; our main argument opposed this. Also, they only considered impacts to Duncans Mills; we convinced them to study impacts to Vacation Beach
• Dry Creek EIR completed and approved in 2015
• RRWPC submitted comments that asked about impact on river from habitat projects and altered flows. They claimed that it would have no impact and didn’t study. We weren’t in a position to litigate that one issue, but we are asking for a Hydrologic Index for Lake Sonoma and lower Russian River which would address the problem
• Fish Flow (Low Flow) Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR)
• Released August 19, 2016 and comments were due March 10, 2017. Document was 7 volumes sitting almost a foot high, weighing about 20 lbs. and holding about 3600 pages, with much of it computer modeling graphs that were incomprehensible to us.
• Comments included those from our group including attorney comments. The most important comments were 77-page document written jointly by the State Water Board staff and Regional Board Staff. We have never seen anything comparable.
• SCWA is currently responding to comments which will probably be done by sometime next year. Then they produce the final EIR which includes original DEIR, comments, and responses to comments. The Board of Directors then has opportunity to make changes before they hold a meeting at which they approve the document and send it on to the State for consideration of a change in SCWA Water Rights Permits.
State Water Resources Board (Water Board for short)
• UCPs and TUCOs:
• In the meantime, as directed by BO, annual petitions submitted requesting permission to do low flow for season. SCWA submitted this year’s petition on April 19, 2017. On May 1st, the State Board announced that they have received Petition and comments/protests can be made through June 1, 2017. Knowing that the State releases the Order before the protest period ends, RRWPC submitted informal protest on June 10, 2017 and State acknowledged it when they released Order in mid-June. They authorized low flow to 70 cfs, but not 60 cfs, as SCWA requested. They also called for a great deal of water quality monitoring and reporting (which could serve as rationale to not grant low flow in future). If they had not authorized low flow at this time, they would have been in violation of the Endangered Species Act
• State Water Rights Permits Alterations
• At the same time the DEIR was being written, the State issued a notice about a comment period to address the Water Rights Amendment Process. While they do not have a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process per se, they have an equivalency process, and wanted comments on the environmental effects of changing releases (i.e. low flow) to the levels required in the BO. (Lower river would go from summer minimum of 125 cfs to 70 cfs) This forced us to prepare TWO sets of comments with different focus, although providing much of the same information. We also had our attorney write two comment letters as well.
• As stated, the State and Regional Water Boards prepared their own comments on SCWA’s DEIR on the proposed project. Those comments asked detailed questions about such things as water quality issues, including addressing issues around biostimulatory substances, toxins, and pathogens. They asked many questions relating to the protection of drinking water, etc. (State comments can be found on our website at www.rrwpc.org .
• RRWPC had to conduct two letter writing campaigns. We couldn’t do both together because we thought people would get confused (many did anyway). We started with the State Board water rights protest and ended up with about 700 protests being submitted. This convinced the State that there is a great deal of public concern about the issue. Subsequently we got 331 comment letters on DEIR submitted to SCWA. Not quite as impressive, but enough to make a statement.
Main issue for lower river…
• The main issues for lower river, alluded to earlier, were as follows:
• Lowering flows in the lower river is to assist the implementation of a project (Estuary Project) that for over seven years has been an almost total failure and for which conditions are regularly inappropriate for its implementation. Therefore, there is no real reason to provide a permanent flow lowering for a project that is not likely to ever work.
• Furthermore, there is an inherent conflict, acknowledged in the DEIR, between the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act (addressed by our attorney in his comments) in that the low flow project is likely to exacerbate the problem with biostimulatory substances (toxic algae) and that is against the North Coast Basin Plan and the Clean Water Act. There is a great deal of toxic algae in the lower river and this is a health and safety issue that is not being ignored by either State Board.