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$3 million available for Russian River blueprint in voter-approved Proposition 68

Sonoma County is poised to benefit from millions of dollars in parks, water and land conservation funding from the new $4.1 billion state bond measure approved by California voters last week.

Proposition 68 will generate at least $400,000 for the county’s Regional Parks system and half that amount for each municipal park district in the county.

Up to $20 million has been promised for tidal marsh restoration in San Francisco and San Pablo bays, and hundreds of millions of dollars has been committed to bolster projects that range from trail development and groundwater treatment to preservation of wildlife corridors.

But tucked within the measure’s 27-page description is a line that, while not electrifying, could result in one of the most ambitious environmental planning efforts on the North Coast in years. It calls for $3 million for “projects supporting a comprehensive regional use management plan for the Russian River.”

In other words, a blueprint to guide the future use and restoration of the Russian River. Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chairman James Gore, who pushed for the funding, calls it a “one-watershed plan,” reflecting the basin’s multiple, intertwined uses and bringing clarity to what he called “a cacophony” of regulations and recovery schemes.

“The Russian River is the crown jewel of Sonoma County and the reason this place is so vibrant,” Gore said last week. “Every time we fill up a glass of water or take a shower or a bath or swim or feed our animals - all of that is the Russian River for at least 600,000 people in the area.”

The proposition language states that the goal of the plan would be “to reduce conflict and promote water supply improvements, habitat restoration and protection, cooperative public recreation and commercial activity.”

The rest is yet to be determined.

Since he was first elected in 2014, Gore has been seeking to build a stronger coalition of stakeholders with the aim of improving and restoring the river for people, water quality and wildlife. Partners include public agencies such as the Sonoma County Water Agency and Regional Parks, as well as nonprofits such as LandPaths, whose mission mirrors Gore’s interest in connecting people with the river through parks, trails or water recreation, as a means to protecting and restoring the waterway.

“The future of a vibrant Russian River is one that people are on all the time,” he said.

Gore convened a river-length paddle in August 2016 to kick off conversations about the Russian’s future, followed last spring with a summit of stakeholders that drew more than 200 people.

Along with other public officials, he worked to ensure ?Prop. 68 - formally titled the California Drought, Water, Parks, Climate, Coastal Protection, and Outdoor Access For All Act of 2018 - included seed money for river management.

“This is building on years of work to highlight and promote this remarkable watershed and the need to provide more comprehensive planning and implement important restoration work,” said Grant Davis, general manager of the Sonoma County Water Agency.

The 110-mile Russian River watershed dominates the North Coast region, cutting south from central Mendocino County through Sonoma County before turning west toward the coastal village of Jenner, where it meets the Pacific Ocean.

It is a critical drinking water supply to more than half a million people, a thriving recreational hub, a feeder of forests, vineyards, farms and fisheries along the way.

But continued population growth, climate change and long-standing water quality and wildlife habitat challenges contribute to rising, sometimes competing, demands on an already over-taxed resource. Under federal standards, most of the 1,485-square-mile watershed is impaired by excess sediment loads, a legacy of human interaction that includes gravel mining, logging, grazing, farming, dam-building and urban development.

Users are not always unified in how the river should be used or managed - a point that was particularly clear during years of drought, when water was scarce and consumers bristled at spring-time flood control efforts that allowed thousands of gallons to go to waste.

Efforts to preserve the storage in Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma, the watershed’s two main reservoirs, lowered river levels, angering sport anglers and paddlers, as well as likely contributing to blooms of dangerous blue-green algae.

The irrigation and frost-protection demands of vineyards and wineries often rile conservationists, but an equally influential mandate for local water managers is their charge to protect and restore fish habitat. Without measurable gains on that front, the whole water-delivery system could be upended by more radical and costly interventions.

The hope of many partners is to head off that prospect.

The move toward better planning reflects “a strong desire in the community to develop a robust management plan for the Russian River Basin,” said Sonoma County Regional Parks Director Bert Whitaker.

The planning effort would be developed in collaboration with the California Natural Resources Agency. It was advanced Thursday by the Legislature, which approved a state budget that included the $3 million for the Russian River.

State natural resources staff must next determine the scope of the local effort and the parties involved.

In addition to clarifying management goals, a watershed plan would also better position the county to compete for regional and state funds, such as those made available through Proposition 68 and potentially through an $8.9 billion water supply and quality bond on the California ballot this fall, Whitaker and Davis said.

“The Water Agency and Regional Parks have been working collaboratively on an effort to develop a comprehensive plan for the ongoing management and restoration of the Russian River watershed,” Davis said. “This funding and the developed plan is vital to leverage future state funding for the benefit of the Russian River watershed.”

John McCaull, land acquisitions program manager for Sonoma Land Trust, noted that any advantage is important, given “pent-up demand” for scarce, competitive grants.

“It’s a good day,” said Davis. “It’s great that Prop. 68 passed. It’s a real significant boost to those efforts.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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