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Low water level threatens Russian River businesses


Wayne Koniuk was back Sunday for a canoe ride on the Russian River, the seventh time this year the San Francisco man has paddled the waterway above Healdsburg.

"It's still good. There are only two parts where you have to get out of the boat and push the canoe through," he said.

"We haven't found it too disruptive," his wife Karen said of the lower than average water level in the river. "We still have a great trip."

A dry spring resulted last month in some of the lowest river levels seen in decades. Although releases from Lake Mendocino have since increased and brought the river up, there are ongoing concerns about the impact to recreation.

"I don't tell people it's business as usual," said Lollie Mercer, owner of River's Edge Kayak and Canoe Trips in Healdsburg. "There's less river to paddle in, and in the river channels under the trees our clients have to duck a lot. And they hit sandbars. They have to get out more often."

"In June, the river was absolutely at the lowest we've seen it ... since the 1976 drought. Luckily it's come up since then," said Don McEnhill, director of Russian Riverkeeper, a conservation group that advocates for clean water and healthy rivers.

He said that 25 percent more water has been released from the dam since late June, which "has made a positive difference."

Releases from Coyote Dam at Lake Mendocino, near Ukiah, are controlled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Sonoma County Water Agency.

Officials have a number of things to weigh that include providing water for domestic use, agriculture, fish migration, as well recreation.

The river is a main source of potable water for more than 600,000 residents in the North Bay who are served by the water agency.

Both McEnhill, Mercer and others who depend on the Russian River for their livelihood said the Army Corps released too much water into the river last winter and early spring, trying to make sure there was enough capacity at Lake Mendocino to provide for flood control.

But after a very wet December, the rains disappeared, making it one of the driest springs on record.

"All that precious water was released, thinking the storms would come. And they didn't materialize. That was too bad," said Linda Burke, owner of Burke's Canoe trips in Forestville.

In February, March and April, "I watched tens of thousands of acre feet of water — that precious resource — go out to the ocean, never to be seen again," said Mercer. "I believe it was poorly managed."

Attempts to reach Water Agency and Army Corps officials for comment Sunday were unsuccessful. But Riverkeeper's McEnhill said both agencies are studying ways to better forecast the weather and manage storage at Lake Mendocino.

"They have an operating manual authorized by Congress," McEnhill said. The releases from Lake Mendocino "are not something they do willy nilly. It's a very elaborate process to try to modify the way they operate the dam.

"I believe they got feedback from the community in June. Often when flows are that low you get phosphate spike problems," McEnhill said, explaining that it stimulates algae blooms, consumes oxygen in the water and harms endangered fish.

The good news, he said, "is the flows are higher than they were early summer but short of what would be perfect in our book."

Mercer also worries about spikes of hot weather that quickly impact river levels.

"On a hot day and really hot days, we watch the water line taken down in front of our eyes, within hours," she said.

The pumps that supply agricultural water are a major reason, she said. "When they start pumping out on hot days, it's barely enough for us to operate in."

Mercer believes the lower water levels have impacted her business this year, and she said it has the potential to impact other tourist-related business, including lodging and restaurants.

Her clients come from all over.

"It was France and Switzerland yesterday. Today it's Norway and Argentina," she said Sunday of her customers. "We have international people — Middle East, a lot of Asians, people from Australia, New Zealand a few days ago."

While the number of customers has increased every year in the eight years she has been in business, Mercer's not expecting this year to surpass it.

"We're still on track to do 20,000," she said.

She worries that another dry winter could force her to close next year.

Burke of Burke's Canoe Rentals said it's too early to say how her season will stack up against last year. But, she said, "we have a very strong loyal customer base from all parts of Sonoma County, and they are still coming out. They love their river and know what a wonderful resource they have in their own backyard."

Larry Lab, owner of Russian River Adventures, said he is lucky in that his kayak trips are in a stretch of the river below Dry Creek that is supplemented with water released from Lake Sonoma behind Warm Springs Dam.

"I have no complaints. Business is up over last year," he said Sunday. "We're still on track to have our best season ever."

Along the river Sunday, there were plenty of folks in kayaks and canoes.

"It was great. We didn't have to get out once. It turned into a beautiful day," said Jessica Klein, a Santa Rosa veterinarian who took a River's Edge Canoe trip with her husband.

They took the half-day paddle down the river from the Rio Linda Academy about five miles downstream to the Healdsburg Memorial Bridge.

Upstream at Del Rio Woods Beach, lifeguard Joseph Pickard said the river "is noticeably a lot lower and the water doesn't flow as much. This year it's really bad. This is definitely lower than usual."

He added, "there are still swim holes, just not as many."

Some canoeists at Del Rio were bumping against gravel beds and using their paddles to push off into the deeper channel.

"There's not enough water to flow all the way," said Daniel Cross of Cotati. "I managed to prod it, dig it along," he said as he and his wife Leslie pushed away at the gravel bed rubbing the underside of their canoe.

But overall, they were still having a good time.

"It's a perfect way to spend the summer," said Leslie Cross.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.