Drought is pummeling the Russian River. Here’s what you need to know
The Russian River serves as a main source of drinking water for more than 600,000 people in Sonoma, Mendocino and northern Marin counties. It is a refuge for endangered salmon runs and supports a thriving recreational economy. Much of the region’s $12-plus billion wine industry wouldn’t be here without it.
It is also under extraordinary strain amid the ongoing drought. Here is a snapshot of how the crisis is playing out in a watershed vital to our lives and local economy:
*The river’s 110-mile main stem is still flowing — fed by minimum releases from two dams. But its tributaries are drying up and its two main reservoirs are lower now than they’ve ever been at this time of year.
*To ensure enough drinking water exists, state regulators have begun ordering several thousand water rights holders to halt their diversions from the river. The move affects grape growers, ranchers, rural residents and some communities in Mendocino and Sonoma counties.
*Sonoma Water, the region’s main wholesaler for drinking water, has cut by 20% its use of river water, leading local cities that supply residents and businesses begin ordering mandatory water savings for homes and businesses.
*The drought, combined with rising peak and average temperatures, have put the river’s prized salmon and steelhead trout runs — a small fraction of what they were a half century ago — in new jeopardy. Some of the young migratory fish already have been rescued from shrinking pools in tributaries. They face a long dry season before winter rains return.
*Drought can exacerbate some of the river’s long-standing problems, including excessive nutrient, bacteria and sediment levels, which can impact water quality. The problems are tied to decades of heavy logging, gravel extraction, wastewater leakage, farm runoff and urban development.
*The river remains a vital ecosystem and engine of the local economy. It is beloved destination for generations of families and visitors from across the world. And its future depends on careful stewardship, conservation of resources and a shared understanding of its value to our region.