California floats tighter water regulations to protect Russian River salmon

Thousands of landowners along Sonoma County’s four major coho salmon spawning streams would be required to report their use of water from both surface sources and wells under proposed new state regulations intended to protect the highly endangered fish species.

The sweeping proposal, announced this week, is aimed at about 13,000 landowners in 113 square miles of the watersheds around four Russian River tributaries: Dutch Bill and Green Valley creeks in the west county, Mark West Creek north of Santa Rosa and Mill Creek west of Healdsburg.

The mandatory water reporting would be done via an electronic form that landowners would fill out online, said Andrew Hughan, a spokesman for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, which called for the action to protect coho salmon.

The move represents a significant escalation of what had been a voluntary water conservation request of landowners along the same streams earlier this spring. But water regulators noted that state wildlife officials determined last month that those measures fell far short in protecting dry-season flows for salmon in what is now the state’s fourth year of drought.

“Swift action is necessary to protect their limited habitat and avoid extinction given the continuing dry conditions,” Barbara Evoy, a deputy director with the State Water Resources Control Board, wrote in a letter announcing the state’s proposal.

Some details, including the specific watershed boundary lines, will be determined by the water board, which is scheduled to consider the proposed regulation at its June 17 meeting.

In addition to mandatory water reporting by residential and commercial property owners, including vineyards and wineries, the proposed rules would also require “enhanced conservation measures,” such as use of gray water - from sinks and showers, for example - instead of drinking water for watering lawns and washing cars. Those water-use restrictions do not affect commercial agriculture.

By including groundwater in the proposed regulation, however, state regulators crossed into what was, until recently, a virtual vacuum in California water rules dating back to the Gold Rush era. Dropping water tables and dwindling streams in the drought have forced the state to increasingly recognize the connection between surface and groundwater levels in its regulations.

“Groundwater is included in the proposed regulation because the close hydraulic connection between groundwater and surface water in the region makes groundwater pumping a significant factor in stream flows,” a water board fact sheet said.

Sonoma County officials are now working on a local groundwater management plan, likely to include well monitoring, in the wake of the Legislature’s enactment last fall of a statewide framework for regulating underground water sources on a large scale for the first time in history.

Jim Doerksen, whose Santa Rosa-area ranch would be covered by the proposed regulation had mixed reviews of the state action.

“They are finally admitting that the wells dried up our creeks. I agree with them, ” said Doerksen, a retired Santa Clara County water district hydrologist and longtime critic of county and state water policy. His ranch touches on a mile of Mark West Creek, which once harboured abundant coho salmon and steelhead trout runs.

Doerksen said the creek started running low in 2005, about five years after grape vines were planted along it. Vineyard wells have lowered the water table, Doerksen contends, eliminating natural springs that sustained streams around the county.

Russian River coho salmon, which once supported a commercial harvest of more than 13,000 fish a year, have been in decline since the 1950s and are now rated as the eighth most endangered species under federal protection, Evoy’s letter said.

A multimillion-dollar effort to restore the native fish species, launched in 2001, revolves around planting about 200,000 fish - bred at the Don Clausen Fish Hatchery below Warm Springs Dam on Lake Sonoma - each year in about 20 streams.

But increased pumping of surface and groundwater results in “disconnected stream systems with isolated pools containing low oxygen levels and elevated temperatures that kill fish and threaten coho salmon with extinction,” Evoy’s letter stated.

Tito Sasaki, chairman of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s water committee, said the regulation would have “very little positive effect” on the conditions for endangered fish in county streams.

Mandated water use reports “don’t solve the problem” and would diminish “the cooperative approach we are trying to develop with the state” over water use during the drought, he said.

Requiring farmers to install water meters on their wells would be “extremely onerous,” Sasaki said.

Landowners who do not provide the water use information or comply with the conservation measures may be subject to penalties of up to $500 a day, the water board said.

In April, state regulators asked 650 landowners along the four local streams to voluntarily reduce water diversions. Officials threatened to halt the diversions if the results were insufficient. They made no mention of well water.

That effort resulted in voluntary agreements with only 20 homeowners, an amount deemed insufficient by state fish and wildlife officials. The proposed mandatory regulations were requested in a May 28 letter from Fish and Wildlife Director Charlton Bonham to Tom Howard, executive director of the water board.

The letter expressed the wildlife agency’s conclusion that conditions in the four watersheds draining into the Russian River were “quickly deteriorating and without significant water conservation efforts most if not all portions of these tributaries could experience fish mortality due to early drying.”

A week before the April request for voluntary cutbacks, biologists warned that about 300,000 juvenile coho salmon in Russian River tributaries were in danger of being trapped and perishing as streams dropped and became cut off from the Pacific Ocean.

Coho salmon and steelhead, a threatened species, depend on pools in the tributary streams to grow during the summer and then migrate to the ocean from late fall through spring.

Hughan, the state water board spokesman, defended the broad approach taken by the state in its latest bid to safeguard the fish.

“The problem is huge,” he said “Everyone living in the watershed is affecting the streams so we need as many residents to participate as possible to keep as much water in the streams as possible.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or On Twitter @guykovner.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Andrew Hughan as a spokesman for the State Water Resources Control Board. He is a spokesman for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

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