Sonoma County Gazette, August 2010

No Low Flow so far…

By Brenda Adelman

Summer flows in the lower river have been much higher than anticipated so far, averaging almost 200 cubic feet per second (cfs), rather than the 70-85 cfs authorized by the State Water Board in their Temporary Urgency Change Order.  (This is government-speak meaning: We are taking away substantial amounts of your surface water on short notice without environmental review.)

Interestingly, some believe that the major motivator for designating lowered flows in the river’s main stem to begin with, is to compensate for the lack of tributary flows resulting from the State’s ineffective regulation of agricultural water rights permits and the subsequent need to “quickly” rescue the rapidly declining salmonid fishery.  In other words, it’s a much easier process to lower flows, close the Estuary, and delay taking on controversial water rights conflicts that supported the fishery decline in the first place.

The intent of low flow, as explained in previous articles, is to create a fresh water lagoon at the mouth of the river to provide beneficial habitat for juvenile steelhead.  For the last ten years, the mouth has been open during the summer most of the time, and salt water dominated the estuary.  By lowering flows upstream, flooding of structures in the Jenner area could be avoided.  The Agency’s plan, at the urging of the Federal Biological Opinion, is to construct a barrier beach after the mouth’s first closing to allow fresh water to escape, but prevent sea water from entering in, thereby allowing fresh river water to accumulate.

The mouth closed around July 7th, and the barrier was constructed. The very next day, Agency staff announced that it did not work and the wave action at high tide reopened the mouth.  They announced further that they would do nothing else until the mouth closed again naturally, which it has not done so far.

Local Water Agency staff claim this year’s high flows (as measured at Hacienda) may be due to the large amount of rain that fell this spring.  But, according to unofficial reports, many tributary flows into the river are very low now, and since releases from Lake Mendocino have been normal, it’s not clear why the Russian has remained rather full but numerous tributaries have not, especially since the weather has been cooler than usual for this time of year. (Water use escalates dramatically during hot spells.)  These conditions seem to conflict and illustrate the complexity of factors that must be considered in managing river flow.

There is great concern for possible environmental harm that could result from excessively lowered flows, particularly in August and September, and which can still occur.  The wide range of flows is exemplified by last year’s drought conditions, June’s average flow was 185 cfs, July’s was 95 cfs, August was 63 cfs and September’s, 80 cfs.  It is unlikely that we will see an average as low as 63 cfs this year, so enjoy your summer.   Yet, the Biological Opinion requires low flow designations on an annual basis (between June 1st and October 15th) until a permanent change is established.  Our group, RRWPC, submitted comments on the Temporary Urgency Change Order and we are still waiting for a response.  We have heard that flows will be significantly reduced in August and we will keep after them to address and preserve water quality.

Inundated with algae….
Ironically, higher flows in the Forestville and Guerneville areas have improved water quality conditions insofar as algae is concerned.  But in the Monte Rio area, where flows are more under tidal influence, and while the mouth is open, water depth is very shallow and algae problems have proliferated, with some claiming that conditions are worse than they have ever been.

Russian River Watershed Protection Committee (RRWPC), with the help of Vesta Copestakes, recently published a ten page photographic report showing impacts of 2009 low flows and resulting extensive algal and invasive plant growth (Ludwigia).  You can view this report at: All pictures were taken in the lower river last summer between early June and October 6th.  Numerous algal varieties floated in and on the water, getting more prolific as flows decreased.  Several volunteer photographers took pictures from Steelhead Beach to Duncans Mills of excessive algae blooms and the extensively proliferating invasive plant called Ludwigia.

Some of us recently met with Regional Board and County Health staff members, at the Monte Rio Beach and also at a site one mile downstream.  We viewed (and photographed) extensive algal mats of various shapes, colors, and sizes occurring this year as well.  Samples were taken to identify algal species and staff promised that this problem won’t be ignored.  The river is now officially designated (under the Clean Water Act) as impaired for temperature and sediments and in some places, pathogens, but not nutrients.  The high temperatures and excessive sediment pollution however, contribute extensively to the nutrient problem.  It is our goal to make sure these problems are addressed.

Please contact us…
Brenda Adelman is chair of Russian River Watershed Protection Committee and can be reached at Our group is very interested in hearing about your experiences on the river, especially in regards to water quality problems.  Please write to us and tell us your stories.