Sonoma County Gazette, August 2009

River Photography Project and Water Quality Studies Pass Half Way Point

By Brenda Adelman

The photo project…..
For the last two months, a group of volunteer photographers have been documenting conditions in the lower Russian River.  The photo project was triggered as a result of the State Water Board’s May ruling authorizing the Sonoma County Water Agency to greatly diminish river flows in order to address draught conditions in Lake Mendocino.

The project’s goal has been to provide a summer “snapshot” of what happens to the river during ultra low flows.  We have not only been taking pictures, but simultaneously tracking Lake Mendocino levels, reports on lower river flow levels, and water quality monitoring results for nutrients, bacteria, and conventional pollutants such as dissolved oxygen, temperature, turbidity, etc. This project will continue through September.

Water quality results….
Both the Sonoma County Water Agency and the North Coast Regional Board have been monitoring 15 locations along the Russian River in Sonoma County for three different types of bacteria, with enterococcus being the most problematic. This bacteria is the most sensitive indicator of mammal caused bacterial pollution.  Testing began May 28th and continues weekly until early October.  When a positive reading occurs, they return the following day (and sometimes a third day) until they get a clean reading.  They do not test on weekends however, when recreational use is at its highest.

The monitoring results for enterococcus since May 28th (through August 1st) include the following: Camp Rose and Healdsburg Memorial Beach had 4 and 2 excursions over the limit respectively. Steelhead Beach had one.  Mom’s Beach in Forestville had one.  Hacienda Bridge at Sunset Beach had five.  Johnson’s Beach had nine.  Monte Rio kid’s beach had 5.  Monte Rio’s downstream beach had none.  In many cases, the health department put up notices warning people, but according to a conversation I had with a public health official, they did not consider the excursions serious enough to close the beaches.

There seemed to be some interesting patterns, although no final conclusions can be drawn from them.  Testing started on May 28th, but excursions didn’t really show up in the lower river until June 18th.  The beaches with highest use have had the most pollution.  It could be partly because a bacterium resides in the sediments, which get stirred up during heavy recreational use.  It could also be that people and/or animals sometimes use the river as a toilet causing contamination.  Regional Board staff think that some high readings may be caused by failing septics, yet the most numerous readings occurred two miles downstream of the start of a sewered area, so it’s hard to draw that conclusion in this case.

Conventional pollutants have been monitored at about six beaches.  The Water Agency has monitoring equipment in the river that takes and reports continuous readings, the most problematic being water temperature.  The threatened and endangered salmonid species that are of most concern need cold-water temperatures ideally below 18 degrees Celsius.  Water temperatures in the Guerneville area have been averaging between 20 and 25 degrees Celsius.  The higher of these levels can be catastrophic to those species if they are sustained during the fall migration season.  The lower levels can also have serious impacts.

Flow levels and water demands…..
Because of the relatively cool weather this summer, high water demands have not materialized and Lake Mendocino is very close to the same level it was this time last year. These moderate temperatures probably also explain why flows have averaged around 70 cubic feet per second (cfs) rather than the 35 cfs requested by the Water Agency.  Water contractors have been claiming conservation savings up to 32% over 2004 use, but we have not seen much data to back this up.  Truthfully, we don’t believe savings have been that high, since most contractors have been unwilling to implement mandatory conservation that prohibits such activities as lawn watering.

The Water Agency has been limiting total diversions for all contractors to 53 million gallons a day and contractors are worried that they will not have enough water available during a hot spell.  They are demanding that more water be available on very hot days and have been told by the Water Agency that they need to conserve more instead.  The Agency in the meantime had shut down some of their pumps and wells to save money.  Because they are selling less water, they have fewer funds to provide services and need to cut back on operation and maintenance costs.  We believe that contractors can do a lot more conservation and would much rather see that happen, than see flows diminish much lower than they are now.

River levels and Recreation….
From our perspective, at 70 cfs the canoes can still get through and people can swim in some deeper areas, and recreation survives.  If flows go much below that level, it will get much harder to sustain. Many urban dwellers are trying hard to conserve, but many are still oblivious about the need until the word MANDATORY is used in relation to water savings.  In the meantime, lower river beaches have been very crowded this summer in spite of limited flows.  The hottest days have seen the biggest crowds.  The heat definitely brings many people to our river shores.

As for the photographs, we have found that it’s difficult to see significant changes in river levels in a photograph.  The water can be much shallower, but from a bridge, the only way you can assess depth is by photographing people traversing the river and showing it’s only up to their ankles.   Occasionally we also see people pulling canoes and kayaks.   Most of our pictures have been taken on weekends, to demonstrate very high recreational use.

Photographers have also seen a lot of algae in several different forms and the invasive Ludwegia indicating extensive nutrient pollution. Some algae float and some are attached to the banks or bottom.  Some are a dark color and some we have seen are bright chartreuse green. The Ludwegia is very thick, but grows out into the water gradually. We are very concerned that if flows go much lower, this will change, and we will see the plant invade the river more aggressively.

We invite the public to share their pictures of the river.  (Please send to Brenda at and also send copies to  Please make sure you provide us with dates and locations on each picture.

Also, we encourage you to get on Russian River Watershed Protection Committee’s mailing list.  Just email Brenda at and leave your name and mailing address and we will send you our latest mailer that contains a target letter to the State Board protesting low flows.  Our mailers come out every other month.  (We don’t sell or loan our list to anyone.)