Sonoma Co. Gazette, July 2010

Low Flow or Natural Flow: Both Controlled by Water Agency
by Brenda Adelman

Response to NMFS:

As lead author of the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Biological Opinion, Dr. William Hearn wrote a lengthy article entitled, “Why Change Summer Flows in the Russian River?”, in last month’s issue of the Sonoma County Gazette (page 1 of 6-3-10 issue).  He  defended the Biological Opinion’s requirement to maintain low flows in the Russian River this summer and from now on.  The article can be found on this paper’s website at

They define “natural flows” at an estimated 30 cubic feet per second (cfs) that may have occurred in some parts of the river over 100 years ago.  The article fails to reveal impacts from all land use changes that have occurred in that time, nor how going back to supposed original flows would impact the entire system in its current condition.

In fact, it stated that Estuary rearing would help the survival of the salmonid species (the Steelhead), but fails to mention that normal habitat in the tributaries has been decimated by legal and illegal water diversions, careless agricultural processes, timber harvesting, gravel mining, etc. Now they are left with fewer fish habitat options, and this scheme is an experiment and possibly a last ditch effort to save species that may not have a chance otherwise.  It is ironic that they want to minimize flows to save species that have been devastated by a lack of sustainable flows in the tributaries.

Actually, when they talk about going back to “natural flows”, they are only recommending such flows for the lower river and not the entire system.  Flows north of Healdsburg will only be reduced to 125 cfs (which is our normal flow and with which we could easily survive).  By assigning a theoretical historical flow of 30 cfs while saying they will allow us three times that amount (85 cfs), they are being manipulative and condescending and certainly not at all scientific.  While they say the system will be operated to provide 85 cfs, the only legal requirement they have to meet is 70 cfs.

Water Quality Issues Receive Little Consideration:

Their phrase, “not duly impact water quality” has not been defined and no specific regulatory standards are offered.  It merely states that the Regional Water Quality Control Board provided oversight on water quality monitoring.  Yet, nutrient monitoring conducted last year incorporated excessive detection limits, which resulted in worthless data.  Temperature was extremely high, but no concern expressed that we were aware of.

Last summer, the average flow in August was 63 cfs (measured at Hacienda Bridge).   Excessive algae blooms and plush Ludwigia, an invasive plant that could take over all the riverbanks and which harbors mosquitoes that may carry West Nile Virus, was blooming all over.  Russian River Watershed Protection Committee (RRWPC) recently produced a ten page 2009 Photo Report of the lower Russian River showing these water quality problems.  You can access that report at or

Dr. Hearn’s article sloughs off the nutrient pollution problem by stating that nutrients and pathogens are the result of failing septic systems in the lower river, while providing absolutely no scientific evidence to back up that statement.  Actually, we’ve been told that there is a report out of UC Davis that will soon be released indicating that a significant amount of pathogens in the Russian River come from the Laguna.  It is obvious to all that much of the nutrient pollution does as well.

At the “low flow” meeting in Guerneville on June 9th, Laura Wilson of Johnson’s Beach and Resort asked why Johnson’s had so many high pathogen readings last summer when they hadn’t had any since 2002 when there was a sewage spill right before their high reading?  She thought current problems resulted from low flows.  High readings occurred on several other beaches on multiple occasions last summer as well.  (By the way, Johnson’s is in the middle of a sewered area, so they can’t blame failing septics here.)

State Board Order Authorizes Low Flows:

Earlier this month, the State Water Board issued the Temporary Urgency Change Order in response to the Petition submitted by the Water Agency.  The Water Agency in turn was fulfilling the requirements of the Biological Opinion to request that flows be lowered this summer to 70-85 cfs.  The request was authorized even though the reservoirs were full and flows upstream of Hacienda would only be lowered to 125 cfs.

At the June 9th meeting, someone asked Dr. Hearn why this was referred to as an urgent request?  He replied that it was just a word and didn’t mean anything.  Yours truly spoke up and explained that it allows them to avoid all environmental review and they will be making the same request every year for many years until they get the permanent change authorized!  In fact, the document contained findings that outrageously asserted:

The proposed change is made without injury to other users of water.
There will be no unreasonable effect on fish, wildlife, or other instream beneficial uses will occur.
The change is in the public interest.

RRWPC submitted extensive comments to challenge these findings.  We submitted pictorial evidence to show pollution occurring in the lower river.  We challenged the assertion that this is all in the public interest and that other beneficial uses will be preserved.  Stay tuned for the next chapter in this on going saga…….

Brenda can be reached at

RRWPC website:

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