RRWPC Newsletter, February 2023: River Update

Think positive, spring is around the corner….As we come to the end of what felt like a very rough winter, spring appears to be peaking out. The rain has been wonderful for our reservoirs, but has taken its toll. I was walking in Armstrong Woods the other day and saw messes like I have never seen before. A State Parks worker told me the damage to the park has been far worse this winter than with the fire almost two years ago. These back to back crises have been difficult on all of us, but hope springs eternal and will come in handy as more massive changes are coming.

Expanded water policies and Mother Nature will be conducting the show…..
Sonoma Water, including their eight prime contractors, are individually and together beginning to plan expansion of water supplies for future growth and development. The following are several means under consideration and brief explanations as to what they include:
• Non-potable recycled water: this program involves expanding treated wastewater for urban landscapes and agricultural use, beyond what is implemented now. This is a fairly benign use of water, except when it mixes with toxic chemicals and runs off into streams.
• Groundwater: This might include adding extraction wells, and conversion of emergency wells in Laguna area to full time extraction, etc. It’s a problem however, when it leads to subsidence because of overdrawn sources, causing the land surface to buckle. Rohnert Park had to switch to Russian River water when some housing walls began to crack.
• Desalination: this involves removing salt from ocean or brackish water to make source drinkable. It is a very expensive, energy intensive use, with toxic brine a by-product of the process, and would probably involve building a pipeline from the ocean to Santa Rosa’s or other facilities. There are many environmental problems, especially to ocean and coast environment and likely to receive strong opposition from West County activists. City officials appeared to nix this plan but it has popped up again recently.
• Purified recycled water: this is water that supposedly has been treated through high filtration, to where it can be placed directly or indirectly into the drinking water supply, otherwise known by some as toilet to tap. We have concerns about possible unidentified toxic substances in the water and ability to consistently sustain high water quality.
• Efficiency Programs: further stepping up the various ways plumbing and people’s behaviors can be altered to use less water. This is a relatively safe and inexpensive method to expand supplies. It’s just that it will not serve large amounts of development.
• Surface water/stormwater capture involves taking supposed excess winter flows from creeks and other runoff. The big problem is determining the definition of ‘excess’. High flows are needed to clean out the river’s nuisance plants, toxic algae, other toxins and debris that accumulates in the river when winter rain is not to be had, and provides sediments for beaches. It could be stored in above ground and/or underground aquifers.
• RRWPC sees the most problematic choices as being desalination because of problems mentioned above, and purified recycled water that goes directly into drinking water supply (‘direct potable reuse’). We question whether ‘purity’ can be consistently achieved and the risks and cost can be very high.

RRWPC is on the Stakeholders group set up by the City of Santa Rosa Utilities Department and we will keep you posted on this issue. The city has already developed over four thousand new units and has been tasked by the State to develop several thousand more. The City is well practiced at manipulating numbers in order to prove that they have enough water to serve this development. It’s all happening so fast that there is little time to decide which battles to wage.
Biological Opinion and Permanent Russian River Low Flow…..
It’s been a while since we provided updated information on the Biological Opinion and Low Flow. The Water Agency has not released much information on this one, but here’s what we know so far. The current Biological Opinion (BO) runs out in September, 2023. (Past comments and protests on proposed low flow summer minimums were submitted on March, 2018.) The revised BO will set forth a list of renewed and new requirements to meet. Entire BO will be renewed and no formal public review of BO will be required, but the State Board will have hearings on permanent changes to minimum flow limits.
A new environmental document would be issued by the Water Agency on revised low flow issue and would address new comments submitted at an appropriate time. We expect the plan is to continue the request to lower minimum flows from 125 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 80 cfs during normal rain years. That means when flows go below the 80 cfs level in summer, they raise flows to the lower river from Lake Sonoma to bring it up to 80 cfs. The 35 cfs in critical dry years will remain as it does now. They will be tasked to address environmental impacts of making this change.
During drought years in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2020, 2021, and 2023, we became used to low and very low flows. While they were down to 35 cfs and below on only a few days last year, it was common for releases to bring the river down to levels between 40 and 50 cfs on most days. That makes the 80 cfs look like a lot of river flow. Since the Water Agency is in need of a lot more water to serve thousands of new housing units that were and will be developed, and people who do their best to conserve now see their efforts as providing for those new units, it’s common to have a feeling that we are being robbed of our own water rights. But the powers that be claim that because of homelessness, we need a lot more housing developed. Needless to say, very little of what has been developed so far is affordable to low income citizens, let alone the homeless. There’s no profit for developers in providing for the homeless.
The Water Agency is also working on a Biological Assessment (BA) that addresses environmental problems of various water remedies (such as low flow) to be called for in the revised and updated Biological Opinion (BO) which is due to come out around next September. (The Assessment should be out in the next month or two.) We don’t expect either of these documents to require a public process and I don’t think providing comments will bring about any significant changes. This is part of the Endangered Species Act where the National Marine Fisheries Service gets to call the shots in order to provide protections for threatened and endangered species such as Coho salmon, Chinook, and steelhead without regard for other needs in the watershed. Saving the species, which we agree is an important endeavor, will none the less create policies to protect the fish while leaving other river issues for the rest of us to deal with. And we are also not totally confidant in their approach.
Update on Pathogen TMDL and Monte Rio/Villa Grande waste discharge plans….It’s been almost four years since the Citizens Advisory Group (CAG) was formed by the County to assist in the plans for implementing septic system upgrades or hookups to a central system for these two towns. Whatever gets developed will probably serve as a blueprint for other communities that need to comply with new requirements. RRWPC has been a part of this process.
The County and Regional Water Quality Control Board (Regional Board) believe that septic systems are polluting the river with bacteria in summer and threatening the health of people recreating. Actually, we believe their so-called proof did not indicate any direct contamination, so the focus now is on non-compliant systems. RRWPC supports requiring inspections every five years and repairs or replacement when necessary, but we have concerns about hookups to Russian River County Sanitation District (RRCSD) prior to completion of extensive collection system repairs that have been recently identified. RRCSD has illegally discharged five times more untreated or partially treated sewage as all 18 other river dischargers combined. Our system is a prime polluter of the lower river, especially during large floods, because of deteriorated force main pipelines and eleven failing lift stations that are badly in need of repair. We are in the process of finishing a paper on this problem. We should post it on our website by the end of the month on the side bar of our main page at www.rrwpc.org We will send a notice to those on our email list when it has been posted.
RRWPC needs your continued support! RRWPC needs your continued support to sustain our river protection work. For those who have not donated recently, we appreciate any donation so that we know you remain interested in receiving our mailers and supporting our work. RRWPC relies exclusively on six (or fewer) mailers a year for our entire fiscal support. You may contribute via check by mail or PayPal at our website. Thank you for your loyal support. Many of you have been on our list for 20 years or more. Also, we urge those of you who are not on our email list, to send us your email address so we can keep you informed between mailer letters. We only send out important notices occasionally and we don’t share either of your addresses with anyone. We hope to hear from you! Brenda