RRWPC Comments on Russian River TUCP (2020) by Sonoma County Water Agency
TUCP Application submitted June 8, 2020
June 16, 2020
Dear Mr. Ekdahl:
RRWPC is a nonprofit public benefit organization incorporated in the State of California since 1983.* We have been tracking lower Russian River flows since commencement of the Biological Opinion’s (BO) development in the mid-1990’s.
The final BO was released by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) on September 24, 2008. Since that time, we commented on several Temporary Urgency Change Petitions (TUCPs) submitted to the State Board by Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA).
We believe that request for this emergency order arbitrarily and hastily sets flows for the lower river without examination of our current issues and needs and fails to protect the public interest in our area. It says nothing about water quality issues that relate to public health nor environmental issues such as toxic algae that potentially harm, not only public health, but a host of other life forms. It ignores issues regarding COVID-19. We urge robust involvement by the North Coast Regional Board, as well as dropping consideration of any flows under 70 cfs for the lower river.
*We have won many awards for our advocacy work, including: Chair Adelman was chosen by the Press Democrat (1999) as one of the 50 most influential Sonoma County citizens of the last Century. RRWPC received the Executive Officer’s Water Quality Stewardship Award from the North Coast Regional Water Board last year, for our many efforts on behalf of the lower river (other awards can be found on our website at www.rrwpc.org in ‘About Us’ section)
About our group:
Our hundreds of supporters are property and business owners, recreationists, and other concerned citizens along the lower Russian River. Supporters utilize the Russian River for drinking water, recreation, fishing, swimming, artistic expression, spiritual well-being, exercise and personal health of ourselves, family, friends and pets.
Due to its proximity to the Bay Area, many visitors vacation in the beautiful and peaceful lower Russian River because it’s easy to access and allows a natural refuge from every day cares.
To visit a place of peaceful tranquility is especially important at this difficult time. Many of our supporters own properties here for their summer enjoyment, but reside and work in the greater Bay Area and beyond. They have great interest in any proposed project requesting low flows. Although the comment period for this TUCP has been stated as 30 days, invariably in prior years the State Board’s Order allowing lowered flows on an emergency basis was issued long before the comment period ended. Please allow adequate time for others to weigh in on this critical issue.
Major concerns regarding TUCP: (Temporary Urgency Change Petition)
RRWPC has tracked flows at Hacienda, about four miles upstream from Guerneville, as well as lower Russian River water quality issues from the mid-1990’s to the present. We urge you to consider these comments before issuing the final Order. This Petition allow flows as low as 40 cfs (2) that may be implemented by SCWA if the State authorizes this emergency petition as is, and such a decision could result in dire health effects in light of the current coronavirus pandemic.
RRWPC is concerned that very low flows (below 70 cfs) will concentrate bacteria and toxins and potentially cause serious health issues for people recreating on the lower river. It will invite huge problems with algal growth, including possible cyanobacteria which brings a host of health issues for adults, children, pets, and wildlife. Potential health impacts from COVID-19 are unknown. For these reasons, we urge you not to authorize any minimum flow below 70 cfs.
The TUCP does not discuss impacts to the lower river in its request. Because natural flows are already very low and will probably go lower, we would allow that the lowest minimum flows considered should be at least 70 cfs at Hacienda, and even that may be problematic. 70 cfs may be great for children and dogs, but only provides ankle deep water to recreate in at most beaches.
SCWA has plenty of water in Lake Sonoma. They claim they can’t release it so it can be saved for possible future drought years. They also claim that the Biological Opinion (BO) forces them to keep flows at around 80 cfs in Dry Creek. Yet there have been MANY times when releases occurred over 100 cfs. We have never seen enforcement by NMFS on those flows. We’ve been challenging SCWA for years on their treating the lower river as an orphan while assuring that their customers have enough. In the meantime, not only has growth been rampant in SR and RP, but a recent article indicated that there are plans for two 5 story apartment buildings on Santa Rosa Ave.
- On pages 11-12 in the TUCP it states that if, “…. storage drops more than one percent below the target water supply storage at Lake Mendocino, then the instantaneous minimum instream flow would be no less than 30 cfs on the upper Russian River and no less than 40 cfs on the Lower Russian River.”)
According to D1610, it is determined on June 1st whether the summer conditions will be designated Normal, Dry, or Critical Dry at various points of the river, including Coyote Dam, Dry Creek, and Hacienda. Since our focus is the lower river, we will only address Dry Creek and Hacienda. In a normal year, minimum flows must be 125 cubic feet per second (cfs) at Hacienda, in a dry year, 85 cfs, and a critical dry year, 35 cfs. There have been VERY few years where the ‘critical’ designation has been necessary (two or three in the last 35 years). The Biological Opinion has called for permanently lowering flows in a normal year to 70 cfs (with a buffer to 85 cfs) but that has not been decided as yet since the DEIR is still being reviewed and rewritten after final comments were submitted three years ago. Instead, SCWA requests low flows on an annual basis when necessary, which occurs frequently, even when normal rain years occur. Finally, the Biological Opinion runs out in three years. If continued, there are many parts that need to be changed. We have no idea how this will end up.
Historical lower river flows: last 15 years:
To summarize some basic information on lower river flows from 2004 to 2019 (15 years), we offer the following statistics (taken from flow charts by Barbara DeIonno and attached):
- All years were considered normal rain years but for 2008, 2013, 2014, and 2015, which were designated as dry. (Link to River pictures by B. DeIonno taken in 2015: go to rrwpc.org, then to bottom of side bar and there is a PDF link to pictures. Also right below that is the icon leading to RRWPC 2009 Photo Report which shows views of several lower river beaches at various flows in 2009)
- During 2005, 2006, 2019, (also in 2017, but only for a few days), natural summer flows never went below 125 cfs. In this situation, the TUCO has no effect.
- 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012, summer flows never went below 85 cfs., which keeps river at D1610 levels, which is fine with us in dry years. Recreation can manage at that level, but not very well if lower. We think 70 cfs should be rock bottom as long as possible. (There may come a point where there is so little water available, SCWA may be forced to only manage river for drinking water supplies.)
- 2004 & 2013: lowest flow was 79 cfs. Lowest flow in 2018 was 71 cfs. for a few days but above 85 cfs. the rest of the time.
- 2007, 2009, 2014, 2015, flows were below 70 cfs. (Not sure if ‘normal’ ranking for 2007 and 2009 were a mistake.)
- Algae and toxic algae proliferated in lower river during very low flows, certainly below 85 cfs. If the sun is hot and river low, then problems get worse. While concern is expressed in the 2020 TUCP for maintaining adequate flows for migrating Chinook (upstream) in fall in the upper river, there appears to be none for lower river during that same period. Why?
- Weekly summer phosphorus readings over the last ten years on about ten lower river beaches consistently exceeded recommended levels. (will try to attach chart)
We include Barbara DeIonno comments submitted March 10, 2017, on Fish Flow DEIR. She provides many pictures of the river at various levels, including the different kinds of algae she witnessed with dates and water flows and also recreation opportunities at various levels. Many of her pictures were taken at Steelhead Beach which is in Forestville and a few miles upstream of Hacienda. We also have a document generated by RRWPC attached (2009 Photo Report) where pictures from Monte Rio and Johnson’s Beach (largest and one of the most popular beaches) are featured.
Specific Comments Regarding issues raised in TUCP:
The Water Agency states as their main reasons for requesting TUCO as follows:
- Large reduction in transfers of Eel River water to Russian River system because of variance issued by FERC to PGE will cause large cut in supplies;
- Request for change in Dry Year minimum streamflow to conserve supplies through the summer and early fall for the later fall fish runs;
- Need to assure adequate water for salmon fisheries, municipal, and agricultural uses (no mention of drinking water for lower river and recreational and environmental needs)
- Assure that they don’t violate the incidental ‘take’ rules of ESA.
As stated, RRWPC is mainly concerned about the lower river, and wants to point out SCWA’s preferred focus on upper river conditions. They consistently seem unconcerned about lower river flows unless some agency demands otherwise and perhaps also because none of their water sales happen here. For years we have requested flow information for Dry Creek as well as information regarding whether Lake Mendocino’s releases make it down to the lower river. What part of Lake Mendocino’s water is flowing past the Hacienda Gauge? In the Fish Flow DEIR the river flow analysis started at Lake Mendocino and stopped at Healdsburg. I have been told by lead staff that they are sure some water gets to Hacienda but do not know how much.
We agree this may be the third driest June at Hacienda in at least the last 16 years, if not the 127 years they claim (p.6 of TUCP). It’s hard to imagine a Dry water scenario where ANY of Lake Mendocino’s water would end up in the lower river. What we would like to see is a focus on the Dry Creek confluence, an analysis of Lake Sonoma’s water resources and a commitment to assure lower river protection from unsafe and unhealthy conditions. It is our layperson’s view that much of the flow at Hacienda comes from natural stream and tributary flow, (indicated by graphs that regularly show higher flows in spring and usually much lower flows in summer) along with some Dry Creek flows that emanate from Lake Sonoma.
Lake Sonoma is three times larger than Mendocino and was partially paid for by lower river property owners, but we have no idea how much of that water makes it down to Hacienda, given that it travels 14 miles before it reaches the Russian River, going by many thirsty vineyards, and then many more after it hits the Russian River south of Healdsburg. The only reports we recall are daily releases from Lake Sonoma. Where is data from the gauge near the river confluence which we do not recall seeing? Neither have we seen data on the amount of water diverted from the river downstream of the confluence for the Agency’s infiltration ponds (if it exists).
The Biological Opinion supposedly requires that Dry Creek flows should not exceed 80 cfs. (TUCP-p.8) But newspaper reports of Lake Sonoma releases often shows releases of what looks like an average of 95 cfs to 110 cfs. We don’t know whether those measurements are from the same location though. We have not heard of any enforcement actions by NMFS or CDF&W or the State Board. Do any exist? If the 95 to 110 cfs leaves some flow for the lower river, we would like to have more information on what amount is benefiting the lower river? Yet, the TUCP claims they need to lower minimum flows at Hacienda because they cannot release more than the 80 cfs from Lake Sonoma as required by NMFS. There needs to be much more public transparency about the management of Lake Sonoma. The discrepancy regarding Dry Creek flows needs to be explained.
SCWA makes it clear that they don’t want to change management of Lake Sonoma even though it holds at least three years of water supply for the area. Instead, they say, they will lower flows at Hacienda without mentioning any of the costs to the lower river community. This stance makes them look like certain politicians and business leaders in government who want to hang on to the wealth all for themselves. Do people realize that almost half of our transported water is being sent to Marin by SCWA?
SCWA analyzed water losses for the upper river, but did not make recommendations in the TUCP on how to recoup at least some of those losses. We believe consideration of their plans and reports on their accomplishments on saving lost water should be mentioned whenever they apply for emergency changes in their permits. What is being done to ‘recover’ stolen water?
There is another aspect to this that we need to mention. Supposedly the BO needs SCWA to meet flows down to 70 cfs in the lower river in order for them to facilitate management of a fresh water lagoon at the mouth when it closes. This is to serve as a nursery for juvenile steelhead in the summer, except that there are few juvenile fish found in the estuary during the summer; most of them are in Dry Creek and other tributaries. The Estuary Project has never worked as intended, but for a few short times in the 12 years SCWA has been working on it. Since the end date of this plan comes up in 3 years, some report should be requested on whether they intend to continue the Estuary Project in a future Biological Opinion? Those reports should consider the impacts of global warming on the Estuary.
Criteria for Approving Temporary Changes to Permits 12947A, 12949, 12950, 16596:
RRWPC agrees there is an urgent need to make changes in the upper river and is willing to have a change of 85 cfs to 70 cfs in the lower. Other than that, we cannot agree that any of the other three statements is true for our area. People in the lower river will readily agree that even 70 cfs will harm the lower river, but flows that are lower than that, can be devastating, especially at this time in our lives where everything feels like it’s going wrong. Also there is no evidence provided to demonstrate that signing off on these statements is valid and true. No, it’s a sham! It’s nowhere close to true. And to state that it’s in the public interest, we have to ask, whose public interest? Not ours! And to think that massive new growth has been occurring is an utter travesty! Please demand that SCWA provide evidence that lower river environmental harm will NOT occur.
No Injury to Any Other Lawful User of Water:
SCWA states that because they maintain minimum flows in the river, there will be no injury to other users because the lower flows will be the same for everyone. This is a false argument. What they are not stating is the harm that will come to the river in terms of water quality during 70 cfs flows versus 40 or 60 cfs flows. To say we all get the same comparative amount of water, so there’s no harm, is ridiculous. What about wildlife users and aquatic life users, the latter living full time in the waterway. What will happen to their lives and their future viability as a species? If you have 3 years of water in Lake Sonoma and you starve the river of water because you want to save it, what are you saving it for? You will have a dead river. I got some pictures today I will attach showing serious algal pollution when the river is at 88 cfs. Just imagine 40-60 cfs.
I am not saying you shouldn’t save some of it for potentially dry conditions next year, but that reservoir does need a plan for how the 3 years-worth of water gets designated over time. To have these TUCP’s every year without accounting for environmental changes that are taking place throughout the river (not just the upper) is not going to continue working. There needs to be a change in the planning process that accounts for all these scenarios in a transparent way that involves community input.
TUCP claims (p.12) that because D1610 allows for critical dry years where flows go down to 35 cfs, there is no unusual circumstances that will result. The implication is that this is normal on occasion. Well, SCWA should know better. Their smart engineers have been studying the issue of drought for a long time. This reasoning just twists words to make it say what they want it to say. Discussions about global warming have been falling on deaf ears for a long time now. People want someone to address it, but no one wants to change their lives to accommodate it. (Mea culpa, I still drive a car, though less and less each year.) This may be the hottest year so far and time to finally DO something about saving our magnificent river.
More Conservation Needed:
For one, much more conservation is needed; 107 gpppd is simply too much water to be using. One suggestion is to increase rate tiers but for the first tier which is essential water use. Santa Rosa, for instance, basically has two tiers and there’s less than a dollar’s difference for 1000 gallons per tier. That is nothing. My second thought is that many conservation programs are optional; more and more need to be required.
SCWA’s contractors have done well in cutting use from the very high 2013 levels. But gradually the cuts they realized during the drought are coming back up. There needs to be another sustained effort to cut those levels again and then even more. We need some ‘tough love’ here or we won’t have a river to play in, drink from, and catch fish and view wildlife in. Now is the time to get serious about change.
Finally, I think there needs to be a major planning effort to address issues in the entire river, including the lower river. Global Warming must be addressed in a meaningful way, instead of continually kicking the problem down the road.