Critics of proposed low-flows for Russian River blast supervisors

Critics of a permanent plan to curtail summertime flows in the Russian River blasted Sonoma County supervisors Tuesday, with many saying the long-anticipated shift in water management would devastate lower river communities and economies dependent on recreation and tourism.

A string of speakers implored county officials to rethink their strategy or risk increased nuisance and toxic algae that could severely impact quality of life throughout the county. About 80 people attended the public hearing at the supervisors’ chambers, the only one planned as part of an environmental impact report scheduled for release later this year.

Others Tuesday night challenged the science behind the move, questioning the rationale of a 2008 federal opinion by the National Marine Fisheries Service that instructed the Sonoma County Water Agency to reduce artificially elevated summertime flows in the river and in Dry Creek as a way to improve habitat for threatened and endangered salmonid fish. ?At issue is a proposed overhaul of the agency’s management under which releases have been made from Lake Mendocino into the Russian River and from Lake Sonoma into Dry Creek, which joins the river near Healdsburg. County supervisors serve as the agency’s board of directors.

“Nothing good will come out of a low-flow proposal,” said Linda Burke, whose family has operated Burke’s Canoes in Forestville for two generations. “This is draconian. It’s unheard of. It’s sad, and it’s disgusting.”

The plan is informed by the 8-year-old federal decision that deemed existing operations a potential threat to the habitat and survival of struggling coho salmon, chinook salmon and steelhead trout, all of which are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Federal fishery experts say juvenile fish need low-velocity streams in order to thrive while feeding, resting and building up strength to go out to the ocean. It’s also believed reducing flows would encourage maintenance of a freshwater lagoon at the river mouth near Jenner, enhancing the survival of young steelhead trout. Reserving a cold water pool in Lake Mendocino for release each fall also would benefit migrating chinook salmon adults as they come in from the ocean and head upstream to spawn, agency personnel said.

The water agency provides drinking water to 600,000 North Bay customers primarily in Sonoma County under a state permit. During the years its staff has been working on a long-term plan to implement the biological opinion, the agency has had to ask the state each year for permission to reduce flows.

But between curtailed releases and drought, the impact on the river has been significant over the past two years, and especially last year, when the appearance of toxic blue-green algae in stagnant areas of the river required postings of beach warnings that scared away tourists, hurting businesses.

Many believe permanently reducing flows will only concentrate nutrients already in the river, like nitrogen and phosphorous, which come primarily from agricultural runoff.

Water agency officials say the research does not show a consistent correlation between low flows and blue-green algae. But business owners and others from the lower Russian River say county supervisors need a better understanding of the cause-and-effect relationship before approving a plan many believe will doom river tourism and recreation.

“I’m really going to urge you to err on the side of the overall health and well-being of our communities and not take this lightly,” Russian River Chamber of Commerce President Debra Johnson said. “It is a big deal. It is a huge deal for us, and we absolutely do not support it at all.”

The proposed flow schedule is written into a six-volume draft environmental report currently under 60-day public review that many of the two dozen speakers Tuesday said was simply too enormous to digest in such a short period of time.

It would nearly halve summertime flows in the lower Russian River, even during the rainiest years, dropping them from 135 cubic feet per second in April each year to 70 cfs from May to mid-October, before increasing releases again. The summertime flow under the existing management protocol is 125 cfs.

The report’s analysis of environmental impacts found no significant impact on recreational opportunities for activities like swimming, sunbathing and boating. But it did suggest there could be an effect on water quality, capable of promoting nuisance algae, though that threat already exists currently.

The public hearing Tuesday was part of the public comment period, which closes at 5 p.m. Oct. 17.

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