RRWPC Newsletter, August 2020: Very Low Flows for the River

Dear Russian River Supporter:

RRWPC hopes this letter finds you and your loved ones safe and secure.  We don’t need to focus on uncertainty about the future, but just hope that soon things will turn around and get back to some kind of normal.  It is a good time to celebrate the small accomplishments we experience.  Lately, RRWPC has been noticing indications that State and County agency personnel whom we deal with on a regular basis, are taking our views much more seriously, and while headway is slow, and often constrained by outdated regulations, we have been making noticeable progress.  Bringing about change is a long term process.

Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) releases Temporary Urgency Change Petition (TUCP)….This last year was the third driest year in 127 years of record for the Russian River area.  On top of that,  because of reduced water transfers from the Potter Valley Project, Lake Mendocino’s water supply is expected to reach critical low levels.  Flows from Lake Mendocino, especially during drought conditions, have never been scientifically determined to significantly expand flows in the lower Russian River however.  It is RRWPC’s view that most of our water comes from natural runoff and releases from Lake Sonoma, which flows down Dry Creek and empties into Russian River just south of Healdsburg.

RRWPC supports development of a study that demonstrates the amount of flow needed from Lake Sonoma to keep summer lower river flows at a level that protects recreation and water quality of the lower river and also meets demands of the Biological Opinion to not release an amount of water that can be harmful to summer upstream migration of juvenile salmonids.

RRWPC responds to SCWA’s TUCP…On June 8th, in order to lower minimum flows for the rest of the year,  SCWA submitted a 46 page Petition (TUCP) to the State Water Board.  Knowing that the State often issues an Order on an emergency basis within two or three weeks, RRWPC immediately began our response to the proposal and on June 16th, we mailed a six page letter with comments to the State and requested that they consider them before releasing a Final Order.  At that time, we also emailed a copy of our letter to all our supporters for whom we had email addresses, and requested they oppose SCWA’s recommendations. **

The TUCP gets complicated and technical so we will try to boil it down to the basic issues.  SCWA is required to meet certain minimum flow requirements (maximum flows are uncontrolled and not regulated) at the upper and lower river.  Because we do not believe that releases at Lake Mendocino have much, if any effect on the lower river, we did not consider the request for upper river changes.  We focused on lower river minimum flows only, which are measured at the Hacienda Bridge upstream of Guerneville.

Because of the drought, and under normal circumstances, we are in what is designated a ‘dry’ year, which calls for minimum flows of 85 cubic feet per second (cfs) as measured at Hacienda. (Normal year minimum flows are 125 cfs.) The TUCP requested minimum flows as low as 60 cfs, and depending on circumstances, which are spelled out, go as low as 40 cfs.  RRWPC thought that if river flow conditions grew more dire, we could reasonably make due with 70 cfs.  The 40 cfs would encourage massive amounts of algae, including toxic cyanobacteria, concentrated toxins and bacterial and viral pathogens, excessive temperatures, etc.  There would not be enough water to float a boat, swim, and conditions could be difficult.

**(About 1/3 of our mailing list has NOT provided us with their email addresses.  We hope that more of you will provide your emails so that we can send you important notices between mailers.  We never share our lists with anyone and assure your privacy.  We are also very selective as to what messages go out, and try to just send critical information. Contact: rrwpc@comcast.net)

Some notes on the Temporary Urgency Change Order…. On July 30th, after waiting almost two months, we received the TUCO.  There is too much to say in our small space here but we intend to put the Water Agency’s Temporary Urgency Change Petition, our 6-page comment letter to the State about their Petition, the State’s Order, and our comments on the Order at our website, www.rrwpc.org  We also want to credit the 75 river lovers who sent the State letters telling of their concern for the Russian River and the need to minimize low flow.  State Board staff acknowledged the importance of those letters and notes.

Determination of flows is a bit complicated, but if storage remains high enough in Lake Mendocino, lower river flows will go no lower than 60 cfs and will probably stay over 85 cfs.  If daytime temperatures stay under 90 degrees for the most part, this is a likely scenario, otherwise flows can go anywhere from 40 cfs on up in the lower river.  We believe that anything under 70 cfs can have negative impacts.  (This is RRWPC’s opinion.)  The Order stated however that flows in October and November will stay in the higher range in order to assure flow for adult Chinook upriver migration, even if the storage goes down.

The document made a strong case about how this Order can be subject to change at any time, implying that they can change requirements based on evidence.  Comments are accepted until August 31st.  You can send to Jane Ling at jane.ling@waterboards.ca.gov.   You can also ask for link to TUCO document.   I would suggest getting comments in earlier rather than later.  Photographs of water quality problems are welcome.

One major concern we have, and ask that you put in your comments, is a request for studies that look at changing basis for determining lower river flow from Lake Mendocino to Lake Sonoma.  This is particularly important because it is likely that the upper river may be cut off from Eel River transfers. You might mention understanding the need for limiting summer flows in Dry Creek to save juvenile fish,  but there is room to fine tune releases to allow for more water in the lower river when threatened with very low flows.

Another big issue is the adequacy of conservation by major urban water users.  In Santa Rosa the average water use of each citizen in about 130 gallons per day.  I figured out that I use about 70 gallons per day without even trying, and in other parts of the world, they use far less.  Also the Water Agency sells “off peak water’ to Marin Municipal Water District to the tune of about 6,000 acre feet a year.


Mid-August virtual Regional Board meeting will address changes to three irrigation permits….RRWPC supports wastewater reuse through irrigation, but over the years, we have witnessed a lot of careless practices that allow illegal runoff resulting in summer discharges into impaired waterways.  For many years, I tracked, photographed, and filed complaints regarding over-irrigation by Santa Rosa’s urban landscape reuse participants.  Not much came of it, but things are about to change.  The primary culprit for mismanagement of irrigation is Rohnert Park.  The staff person for this permit shared with me that she recently inspected some of Rohnert Park’s irrigation areas and found many of the conditions that we documented eight years ago.  (Well, we told you, it takes a long time to bring about change.)  There is going to be a phased enforcement program where they get a chance to make corrections before more draconian measures are taken.

RRWPC will make recommendations for setbacks and more stringent rules for operating irrigation systems so as to prevent runoff. We are especially concerned about urban landscape irrigation, which uses far more treated wastewater per acre than ag irrigation.   In the past, the City decided to irrigate at night when no one can properly assess whether there is runoff or not, and the extent to which it is occurring.  We aim to request more specificity in the permit to limit this practice.

RRWPC wishes you well and requests your continued support!   RRWPC needs your continued support to sustain our river protection work. For those who have not donated in a while, we would appreciate any sized donation so we know you remain interested in receiving our mailers and supporting our work.  Also, please send us your email address if you haven’t already. You may contribute by check with envelope and donor card provided, or via PayPal at our website  address above.  We understand if you can’t contribute at this time and will keep you on our list.   Stay well!    Brenda