RRWPC Newsletter, August 2022: Russian River Update

River Update…..It’s been a lazy summer this July with river issues seeming to take a little rest for the time being.  We’ve settled in with the reality that many changes are brewing behind the scenes and some of the issues will explode with activity soon.   We’re not sure how we will keep up and if anyone has interest in helping us  photograph the river, provide expert testimony, or help with letter writing campaigns, please let us know.

(We expect to get especially busy with bacteria and septic system issues, permanent changes to minimum river flows, Russian River County Sanitation District issues, the Biological Assessment and Biological Opinion, and County and City growth issues.)

July river flows have averaged about 40 cubic feet per second (cfs), which is a little better than 35 and much better than the 25 cfs predicted.  People seemed to be adopting to low flow.  We saw hardly any canoes but lots of inflatable kayaks and other floating devices.  While you couldn’t tell depth by viewing downstream from the Monte Rio Bridge, the water was ankle deep across the river in many places as evidenced by people and dogs strolling across with only their feet covered by the water.  There are some deep places where one can swim however, but caution is needed so as not to be taken by surprise by a sudden drop off.

The cities and the Water Agency have put out great efforts to get people to conserve and water contractors are reporting conservation savings of over 20%.  It leaves us to wonder however, what will happen when the hundreds of new apartment units recently built, get occupied and there is a much higher demand for water.  While we don’t have a count, it seems like most of the units are market rate units and will do little to resolve the homeless problem, which is on everyone’s mind these days. (See end of letter for more on housing inventory.)

Water quality concerns…..As we sat down to write this letter, an email came in from a supporter asking the proper way to control the prolific weed Ludwigia (those bright green plant mats with yellow flowers) bordering the river banks and in some places stretching into the middle of the waterway.  She had been told that the proper way to control this weed was to pull the invasive plant out from the river, allow it to dry on the bank, or elsewhere, and then use for garden fertilizer.  I’ve heard this ‘solution’ before, but I learned from experts that this approach will not stop the rapid proliferation of this aggressive invasive plant and could make conditions much worse.

About fifteen years ago there was a major effort by a team of cities, agencies, nonprofits, scientific experts, and others who came together to study the problem and develop a plan to deal with huge influxes of this weed into the Laguna.  They were especially concerned about these mats being a big attraction to mosquitos carrying the West Nile Virus.  The mats covered local creeks almost entirely, as the streams were relatively narrow and there was virtually no flow to move the Ludwigia out.  We learned that heat from the sun, sediments and nutrients in the shallow creek beds, and very sluggish flows encouraged the plants to grow and grow and grow. (The invasive got started when people emptied their fish tank plants into the creeks.)

At the time, we had several conversations with Ludwigia experts and learned that the plant is almost impossible to get rid of.  (There was a Press Democrat article entitled “Pesky aquatic Ludwigia weed is back” and appeared in the June 6, 2013 issue by Sean Scully. He describes the weed this way after it was clear that the $2.1 million dollar effort had failed, “…but it is clear that the affected waterways, particularly the Laguna de Santa Rosa, are once more clogged with a weed that is almost unbelievably tenacious.”  The Agencies wanted to try again, however the $2.1 million was gone and they never were able to find more.  David Bannister of the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation referred to Ludwigia “….as a big hairy monster.”

Information on toxic algae or Harmful Algal Blooms….In spite of all this, weekly monitoring of the lower river beaches in summer, but for phosphorus and chlorophyll-a, indicate that most nutrients and pathogens are not a problem.  There is some concern about cyanobacteria however, the toxic algae that can attach to common non-toxic algae and Ludwigia.  The County Health Department have found few cyanobacteria yet this year in the lower river, but the conditions are ripe for it, so as a matter of caution, warning signs have been put up. (The term FHAB seen on alert signs stands for Freshwater Harmful Algal Bloom.)  Toxic blooms may be present and the monitors could have missed it, which is easy to do. The blooms often move around and are sometimes hidden so caution is advised, especially where dogs and children are present. Here is a website where you can find more information: cyanoHAB.reports@waterboards.ca.gov

Public input NOT welcome on the Biological Assessment and the Biological Opinion…RRWPC found out very recently that the Biological Assessment had been conducted behind closed doors since the first of this year. (The environmental analysis that precedes the Biological Opinion.) The National Marine Fisheries Service is calling the shots; it’s not surprising they want to keep their work product in the back room.  We found out though that they are required to release the final documents to the public and allow comment.   In the meantime we have heard some Water Agency staff admit that the Estuary Project did not accomplish the fishery habitat benefits they were expecting. No surprise, that’s what we said from the beginning.  The whole point of the effort is to save the threatened and endangered fish.  The work requires the knowledge of varied and dynamic natural systems however, and not just fish habitat.

Santa Rosa provides unrelenting additions to their housing inventory….A year ago last January, Santa Rosa reported that they had issued over 4000 housing building permits, many for new apartment complexes.  In addition they reported that over 2000 additional permits were pending.  So far we have been unable to find data for 2021 and 2022.  We will keep trying.  In the last years since, there has been an unrelenting cry for more housing, even though most of the new developments are market rate, most do not address the needs of the homeless population, and little information (that we have seen) has been provided about population decreases, lower birth rates, and California’s loss of a Congressman due to population decrease, while still emphasizing the need for new housing.

But what we saw today (August 5, 2022) is the icing on the cake!   A new humungous project will be developed on Guerneville Road about one half mile west of Coddingtown at Lance Drive.  Here’s part of the project description: “A proposed mixed use project consisting of 792 multifamily residential units, spread among apartments and single-family attached dwellings, and 5,000 square feet of retail land uses.  On-site residential amenities would consist of common open space areas, dog parks, swimming pools, courtyards with pavilions/clubhouses, internal pedestrian walkways, and a community garden…  A total of 1,586 parking spaces are proposed to be provided on-site.”   We believe that the water will come from the backs of all of you who worked so hard to conserve.  The City constantly brags about how much they have saved, and we wonder if they used “funny” numbers to come up with those savings, but we have no precise details to prove that right now.  Even if they have saved enough, there is no guarantee water crises in the future will not prove more dire.  After all, it’s the water we rely on to put out the fires.

RRWPC needs your continued support…..RRWPC requests your continued support to sustain our river protection work, especially since it appears that we may need to obtain the help of an attorney at some point to delve into these issues mentioned. For those who have not donated recently, we appreciate any donation so that we know you remain interested in receiving our mailers.  RRWPC relies exclusively on six (or fewer) mailers a year for our entire fiscal support and we deeply appreciate the generosity our supporters have shown us, year in and year out.