Sonoma County Gazette, March 2010

Water Issue Update

by Brenda Adelman

We’ve had a lot of rain this winter, or at least a normal amount.  We should be relieved of worrying about next summer’s river flows, right?   Wrong!

More money for less water….
Santa Rosa ratepayers did an outstanding job conserving water use last summer.  In fact, they did such a great job, their fees will be going up 8% for each of the next two years in order to compensate for the 20% increase in water delivery charges by the Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA).  Furthermore, the City may then have access to additional water supplies to use for new growth, if that ever happens, should another shortage be declared.

It’s complicated!   SCWA needs more money for water because water sales have been way down the last few years as a result of water contractor’s successful fulfillment of the State Water Board’s demand for 25% conservation.  Furthermore, Agency costs have gone way up because of the demands of the Federal Biological Opinion (BO) intended to save three threatened and endangered species, Coho and Chinook salmon and Steelhead Trout.   They are also faced with the need for a new pipeline to Marin and Petaluma.  Their current pipeline is severely stressed during peak demand periods and needs to be either greatly improved or replaced at great expense.  That south pipeline (to another watershed) delivers over one third of the Water Agency’s allocation.

Half the water is being sold to districts outside of the watershed….
To give you a sense of last year’s water use and a sense of proportion about who is using what, in all of 2009, Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park and Cotati used a little over 22,000 acre feet of Russian River water.  Petaluma, North Marin Water District, and Marin Municipal Water District used about the same amount.  Others, including Sonoma, Valley of the Moon, Windsor, and other small districts used a little over 5000 acre feet. (total of about 49,000 AFY)  That means that about half of the Water Agency’s water deliveries are consumed outside of the Russian River watershed.

Adding to the shortage problem, because of a three year dry period, summer diversions from the Eel River have recently decreased by about two thirds, causing critical shortages in the Russian River.  Consequently, SCWA also needs to spend a great deal of money developing alternative supplies, including the exploration of ground water sources in the Santa Rosa plain and increased access to Lake Sonoma water.  (SCWA currently delivers about 5000 to 7000 acre feet of groundwater to contractors beyond what is taken from the Russian River.)

Biological Opinion and mandated low flows…..
The Biological Opinion demands a regime of lowered summer flows in the upper and lower river and also in Dry Creek, in order to have adequate cold water in the reservoirs for the fall fish migration.  This will involve the revision of Decision 1610, State Law governing Russian River (main stem) flows.  We have been informed that this process has begun, that the public will be given notice for the release of documents, and will be notified of future public hearings for commenting on the proposed changes.

All last summer flows at Hacienda between Forestville and Guerneville averaged around 70 cubic feet per second.  That is the same amount that the Biological Opinion calls for on an annual basis (Decision 1610 currently calls for a minimum of 125 cfs during a normal rainfall year.).  Unfortunately, recreation and water quality is greatly affected at those low levels and there are many concerns about making this a permanent flow regime.  This will play out further in the coming year.

Biological Opinion and Dry Creek habitat improvements…..
In addition, the Biological Opinion also requires six miles of habitat improvements for Dry Creek in order to slow flows down to a rate that won’t harm juvenile fish. If after building half of the improvements over the next eight years, the project does not appear to successfully slow the flows, then a bypass pipeline from Lake Sonoma to the river will be considered.  The pipeline feasibility study recently began however, in order to examine potential alternative routes and develop cost figures for the possible project.

Biological Opinion and Russian River Estuary…..
Finally, the Agency has plans for a project to keep the Russian River Estuary at Jenner closed all summer.  There have been deep concerns about the impact to the harbor seals who seem to disappear when the mouth is closed.  They have a plan to monitor the seals this summer to find out where they go and whether their habitat would be impaired as a result of this project. They will continue to monitor water quality perimeters in the Estuary and will study the effects of flooding on artificial breaching activities in the past.  If low-lying structures could be raised somehow, there would be no harm in allowing the Estuary to become much more full.  Then it could breach more naturally.  There were about 17 breaches last year, mostly in the fall when the migration period begins.  (Breaching is when they take bulldozers and/or shovels to open the mouth of the river.

Increased Water Demands are Back…..
There is another issue we barely have room to discuss.   Last fall (2009) SCWA announced that they were going to drop their application to the State to increase their water rights from 75,000 acre feet a year (AFY) to 101,000 AFY, and instead focus on other options for increasing water supply.  They had been attempting to obtain these increased rights for the last 18 years.  The City of Santa Rosa subsequently filed a lawsuit  to stop this action, which they saw as a unilateral decision by the County.

To describe City goals in a nutshell,  (along with agreement from many of the other contractors) they want more water for lower cost.  They want to continue attempts to obtain water rights to 101,000 AFY.  They want a strong say in how the Agency spends their money and they want the pipeline project prioritized over the habitat improvements, even though the latter may be cheaper and easier in the long run.

Former General Manager and Chief Engineer Randy Poole recently retired and his job has been split between Grant Davis (General Manager) and Jay Jasperse (Chief Engineer) for the coming year.  The City of Santa Rosa withdrew their lawsuit after the Water Agency promised to give extensive warning before withdrawing the application for increased water supply to 101,000 AFY.  In other words, nothing much has changed, and the desired water grab is still in the works.

Water issues, including the need to protect our precious Russian River, won’t be going away any time soon.