Sonoma County Gazette, May 2009

Lawns or canoes?  Low flows and water shortage spell severe limits for recreation season…..

By Brenda Adelman

Urban water use in Sonoma County and Marin is at least twice as great in summer as in winter.  Coupled with high temperatures, it drives the water drawdown up.  Much of that extra water goes to watering urban lawns.

The Russian River is now experiencing one of the worst water shortages since the Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) came into being in the early 1950’s. It’s a complex story, and for those of us downstream, it’s profoundly unfair, since lower river residents themselves use far less water in summer than their urban friends.

In the last few years, diversions from the Eel River to Lake Mendocino through the Potter Valley Project dropped at least 60%, which was double the expected amount.   This meant that about 100,000 acre-feet LESS flowed into Lake Mendocino each year and is now about 20,000 acre feet lower than it was in 2007, another water short year.  For many years, the Potter Valley Project has been a major source of our summer water supply, and in dry years, the shortage is likely to now be permanent.

On top of that, the Biological Opinion, the new Federal law governing flows for threatened fish species, requires that flows down Dry Creek from Lake Sonoma stay below 110 cfs, in order to protect juvenile salmonids from encountering rushing streams they could not withstand.  This means we cannot make up the difference from Lake Sonoma right now, which is about 90% full.  The Agency and National Marine Fisheries Service are planning a habitat restoration that will slow the flows for the fish, and allow more water to be released from Lake Sonoma to serve urban and lower river needs.  It may be as much as ten years however, before that is complete.

Consequently, the combination of greatly decreased Eel River and limited Dry Creek releases, dry weather conditions much of this last winter, and legal and illegal draw-downs from agriculture (especially for frost protection), combined with a lack of permit enforcement (responsibility of State Water Board), has lead to the prospect of greatly diminished lower river summer flows.

Of course, none of the main stem flows are natural.  They are manipulated by the Army Corps of Engineers in the winter for flood control and by the Sonoma County Water Agency in the summer for water supply.  PG&E controls the releases to Lake Mendocino from Lake Pillsbury.  And all of it is regulated under extremely complex water laws.

In 2007, the Water Agency was also granted an Emergency Order to cut lower river flows to 85 cfs.   That was bad enough.  This year, the County Water Agency, claiming another emergency, petitioned the State Water Board again to allow lower flows this summer.  Everyone recognized that this was the fourth emergency request in seven years and the “emergency” was really a management problem.   State Water Board staff said as much and declared that this Order was really a template for next year’s hearings on an application requesting to PERMANENTLY CHANGE DECISION 1610, THE STATE LAW THAT GOVERNS RUSSIAN RIVER FLOWS.

The State Board demanded that stringent conservation requirements be imposed on the Agency customers and all dam releases lowered by 25%.  The goal this time was not only save water in the summer so it would be available to migrating fish in the fall as now required by Federal law, but also to have enough water for all uses.  The recent Order required, among other things, that water agency customers achieve 25% conservation based on 2004 baseline data.  Board staff also called for cessation of watering commercial turf in the urban areas and insisted that ground water not be used to achieve conservation.

The urban contractors are being asked to cut back 25% over 2004 use, which is really 10% because they will get credit for prior savings of 15%. There was almost no new savings in 2008.  And now they are “kicking and screaming” about new conservation requirements because they have already done so much. And it’s true that they have developed many conservation programs.  It’s just that the situation requires that they do a lot more.  But they are very angry that the State Board wants them to eliminate watering commercial turf entirely and are indicating their resistance.

The State Board also ordered the Water Agency to develop a water right accounting procedure and a method for determining when the Russian River is being supplemented by project water.  This will help identify illegal agricultural water users.

While normal flows in the lower Russian River are at least 125 cubic feet per second (cfs), and can actually run over 200 cfs, the Emergency Order calls for flows of 85 cfs before July 6th and 35 cfs after July 6th.  This is as much as a 75% decrease and probably means there will be no canoeing or swimming.  It may mean no beach use altogether. The Water Agency will be required to do a lot of water quality monitoring, and if bacteria counts get too high, beaches may have to be closed.  Since the 1950’s, we have heard that there has never been a sustained period when Russian River flows were as low as 35 cfs for an entire summer.

Great concerns about water quality were expressed in many of the letters Board staff received from lower river citizens.  There was strong support for the ambitious monitoring and reporting program recommended by the North Coast Regional Board.  While no other river business people attended the State Board workshop in Sacramento on May 6th, Linda Burke spoke eloquently on behalf of not only her own canoe business, but the whole lower river economy.  She vividly conveyed the hardships that businesses and recreationists would experience if the 35 cfs were sustained.

Towards the end of May, the State Board will be distributing a revised Order that will spell out their expectations on the fulfillment of the above requirements. State Board members had listened very intently and respectfully to all speakers at their meeting on May 6th in Sacramento.  In spite of fervid requests to lower conservation requirements and do away with the ban on commercial turf watering, they showed strong support for meaningful limits.  We are running out of water and we no longer have a choice.  We must conserve, or we will literally end up with nothing coming out of our taps.

Brenda Adelman can be reached with questions at