Agencies now responding to comments on low flow project…..
On March 10, 2017, when RRWPC submitted our comments on the 3600-page Fish Flow Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR on low flow), a huge burden was lifted from our shoulders and shifted to the Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) staff who then began their written responses to the issues raised and questions asked about the project intended to permanently lower summer flows in the Russian River. (Final responses from the agency probably won’t be out for over a year.)
We have now entered into a period when public review has temporarily ended and a multitude of staff meetings are occurring behind the scenes to direct the process that should lead to beneficial habitat for fish AND humans through river water quantity and quality policies that serve all interests. The State Water Board has estimated it will take years for a final decision. New reports and studies will be needed, along with responses to water rights protests and additional public comment, and the development of far more information than is currently available must be obtained. For at least 30 years or more, RRWPC has cried out for more attention to lower river issues. Until now we have been mostly ignored; but we are entering a new day, and the nutrient/algae issue is beginning to be addressed. The Regional Board has been collecting information to hopefully begin a 303(d) listing under the Clean Water Act for nutrients.
Recently we took part in a meeting with five lead Regional Board staff to discuss their DEIR comments and our concerns, and the process by which flows may be permanently lowered. Regional Board and State Water Board had jointly submitted 77-pages of comments on the DEIR (described in our last letter) and are now working closely to resolve conflicting requirements of the Endangered Species Act (greatly reducing lower river flows to provide Estuarine habitat for steelhead fish) and the Clean Water Act (provides water quality protection, especially needed here for excessive and sometimes toxic algae). Their general conclusion about the many kinds of algae is that a lot is not known, algal mass behavior is often unpredictable, and the most reliable approach is to clean up and prevent nutrient contributions.
Agencies now working together to resolve issues….
An unprecedented cooperation has apparently arisen between the two Water Boards, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), CA Fish and Wildlife (CAF&W), Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA), Sonoma County Department of Health Services, and other groups now working together cooperatively to find solutions to these problems. They are also working with California SWAMP program (Surface Water Ambient Monitoring Program) which monitors water quality around the state and writes reports on their findings. Finally, there is a willingness to meet with environmentalist groups such as RRWPC who have developed some expertise on the issue and communicate with concerned citizens. And, while they may or may not ultimately do what we want, they have heard our concerns and are truly looking for solutions.
For instance, they are talking about a process that includes flexibility to add flows when it may help address surplus algal blooms. The comment language was very weak however and we raised concern about the need for more detail that includes specific directions about when higher flows are appropriate and necessary. We have concerns about ‘cooperation’ with no regulation and when loosely applied. If the focus is on an adaptive management project that has few specifics, and the good will of the participating agencies is all that binds, the public can end up ‘holding the bag’ if a permanent change (i.e., low flow) is authorized before these details are spelled out. There should be NO permanent granting of low flows without a plan that is flexible yet clearly defined.
Estuary project not working well so far….
At our meeting with Regional Board staff, we called attention to the following document: RUSSIAN RIVER ESTUARY OUTLET CHANNEL ADAPTIVE MANAGEMENT PLAN 2017: (http://www.scwa.ca.gov/russian-river-estuary/: This document reports on Estuary Project implementation and appears to agree with some of the project impediments noted in RRWPC comments. For instance: RRWPC has repeatedly noted (based on study of data) that July and August are the least likely months to see mouth closures needed by the project and normal flows should remain in effect during those months. On page 17 of the document it states, “Wave energy (that generates mouth closure) is greatest in winter, declining through spring, to a minimum in July-August.” The Biological Opinion incorrectly stated that closures are most frequent in spring, summer, and fall. SCWA data indicated that October and November have the greatest number of closures with July and August, the least. In spite of this evidence, no agency staff have yet agreed to maintaining normal flows (125 cfs in lower river) in those months. RRWPC’s main goal is to maintain 125 cfs flows in those 2 months that see the highest recreational use.
Also, P. 20 indicates a difference between smaller estuaries, which the Russian was intended to mimic, and larger estuaries, similar to the size of the Russian River, “The absence of observations of overflow conditions in larger estuaries, similar to the size of the Russian River, suggests that there is a limit to the flow energy that can be accommodated by flow over a sand barrier of finite width (and thus high slope).” In other words, the Russian functions differently in terms of mouth closure conditions than smaller ones it was intended to copy. Also, the Jetty structure and wide open beach at the Russian River mouth are additional factors that contribute to fewer summer closures. The belief that they can manipulate an extremely powerful and dynamic system is proving to be hubris on the part of those who conceived this project. RRWPC has always believed that mother nature should be left alone to do her job. Water draw down in the tributaries along with habitat improvements should be the focus of attention to save the fish.
Temporary Urgency Change Petition: 2017….
The Biological Opinion requires SCWA to submit an annual request for lower flows to implement the Estuary Project every year until permanent changes are in place. SCWA submitted this year’s petition on April 19, 2017. On May 1st, the State Board announced that they received the Petition from SCWA and protests could be submitted through June 1, 2017.
Based on prior experience, and knowing that the State usually releases the Order before the protest period ends, RRWPC submitted our protest on June 10, 2017 and State acknowledged it when they released Order in mid-June. (see protest at our website: www.rrwpc.org ) The Order authorized low flow to 70 cfs, but not to 60 cfs, as SCWA had requested. They also called for extensive water quality monitoring and reporting (which could serve as rationale to adjust low flow in future). SCWA’s only justification for requesting the lowered flows, was that the Biological Opinion requires them to do it. If State had not authorized low flow at this time, they would have been in violation of the Endangered Species Act.
The State is requiring a great deal of information on flows, toxins, pathogens, etc. to be monitored and collected that can serve to later require limitations to application of future lowered flows (State Water Board must ultimately approve permits allowing flow changes.) The river is around 300 cfs as of 6-21-17 (at Hacienda) and probably won’t get down to 125 cfs for a while.
RRWPC needs your continued support….
RRWPC spent about a third of our annual income on attorney comment letters for both the DEIR and the Water Rights proposals. These letters have brought attention to our efforts on these issues and were well worth the expenditure. Now we need to grow a fund to hire him again for future actions. Attorneys are expensive so we need a lot of help, if we are going to preserve Russian River summer flows. Please give as generously as you can; all sized donations are appreciated. We are a small group with small overhead expenses, but depend exclusively on mailers for funds to do our work. PayPal is set up on our website at www.rrwpc.org for those who prefer that mode of contribution. We are extremely grateful for your support.
Agencies now responding to comments on low flow project…..