Drought looms over summer Russian River recreation season

Six Lufthansa flight crew members are returning to Germany with mild sunburns and fond memories of their day paddling blue inflatable canoes 8 miles down the tranquil Russian River from Healdsburg to Wohler Bridge.

“We had a lot of fun,” said Ansgar Stille, who took the self-guided, three-boat float trip with two other pilots and three flight attendants on their layover day out of San Francisco International Airport.

A bright sun came out shortly after they shoved off from a private beach just below the fish ladder at Healdsburg Memorial Beach Park. No one fell into the water, and the boaters enjoyed an hourlong riverside lunch of sandwiches, strawberries and beverages.

The river was easily navigable in the 16-foot soft-bodied canoes, Stille said, touching on an issue that looms over Sonoma County’s visitor-friendly river at the start of vacation season in the fourth year of a statewide drought.

There will be less water in the Russian River this summer than last year, a fact that some river-oriented business people don’t want to talk about. Others have contingency plans in mind, though the exact impact of drought-curtailed water levels isn’t known.

Rigid canoes will grind against the gravel bottom in shallow riffles, requiring boaters to hop out and pull them to deeper water on the 16-mile voyage along the upper river from the Alexander Valley to Healdsburg.

The lower river, augmented by a reliable flow of water from Lake Sonoma via Dry Creek just south of Healdsburg, will run wider and deeper, but the lower volume will delay the filling of popular swimming lagoons behind the summer dams at Johnson’s Beach in Guerneville and Vacation Beach a bit farther downstream.

Boosters also are concerned about algae growth and bacteria in warmer, shallower reaches of the river that flows about 64 miles with a gentle summer current through Sonoma County vineyards and redwood forests, drawing vacationers since the early 1900s.

No matter what vagaries this summer brings, the river will retain its allure, said Don McEnhill of Healdsburg, who has a 50-year relationship with the waterway on which he learned to swim and fish as a child.

“When it’s hot and dry, people still want to go to the river and have fun,” said McEnhill, executive director of Russian Riverkeeper, a conservation group founded in 1993. “At least we have water in our river; there will be dry rivers in California.”

The river is “an integral part of the Sonoma County experience,” said Tim Zahner, chief marketing officer for Sonoma County Tourism. It hosts major events, including music festivals and athletic competitions. “I will promote what’s there,” he said.

Five riverside parks operated by the county attract about 450,000 visitors a year and their popularity is growing, a parks official said.

But because the Russian River is both a source of drinking water for 660,000 people in Sonoma and Marin counties and home to three species of protected fish, it is inextricably bound in a web of regulations that dictate how much water must flow when no rain is expected.

For the drought-stricken summer of 2015, the river’s dam-controlled flow will be based largely on calculations intended to preserve sufficient water in Lake Mendocino near Ukiah, the reservoir that supplies water to communities from Ukiah to Healdsburg and is just over half full now.

On May 1, the Sonoma County Water Agency obtained state approval for minimum flow requirements of 75 cubic feet per second on the upper river, above Healdsburg, and 85 cfs along the lower river, said Pam Jeane, the agency’s assistant general manager. But because of federally approved cutbacks in the diversion of water from the Eel River to the Russian River, the agency will likely seek to reduce reservoir releases further, resulting in minimum flow requirements of 25 cfs and 50 cfs on the Russian’s upper and lower reaches, respectively.

Actual summertime flow will be 40 to 45 cfs at on the upper and 60 to 65 cfs on the lower reach because the flows typically exceed the established minimums, Jeane said.

McEnhill said he expects a 10 to 20 percent lower flow on the river compared to last year - and a lot of personal and business interests are hanging in the balance.

Larry Laba, who owns Healdsburg-based Russian River Adventures, sent the Lufthansa crew members downriver Wednesday when the flow gauge near Healdsburg measured 166 cfs. In late May last year, he recalled, the flow was a mere 38 cfs, the lowest Laba had seen in 14 years of river tourism.

“Our guests got down the river just fine,” he said. “We had zero complaints.”

The key to low-water navigation, Laba said, is to find the deepest part of a river channel, even if it is only inches deep.

“We’re going to remain optimistic,” he said. Should the upper river drop too low, Laba said he has the option of shifting his canoe trip put-in downstream below the point where Dry Creek delivers water from Lake Sonoma, which is 85 percent full and in no danger of running low this year.

Randy Johnson, proprietor of Getaway Adventures, said he is “hoping for business as usual” offering guided kayak tours from Healdsburg to Wohler Bridge. One or two groundings along the way are acceptable, Johnson said, but if the level gets too low he’ll switch to tours on the lower river, starting at Forestville or all the way out at the river’s end in Jenner.

Low flows will make the biggest difference on the upper river, where Healdsburg-based River’s Edge offers self-guided kayak and canoe trips from the Alexander Valley down to Healdsburg Memorial Beach, a stretch rich in wildlife but also featuring gravel bars, tight turns and natural obstacles, such as log jams and overhanging trees, according to the company’s website.

Owner Lollie Mercer declined to comment on prospects for boating this summer.

McEnhill said the upper river is “a little more vulnerable” to low flows, but 95 percent of it consists of long pools with “plenty of depth for paddling,” separated by shallow riffles that can ground boats.

“Wear sturdy shoes,” McEnhill advised. “You will be getting out and walking your boat.”

Algae is another issue, and McEnhill said he has already seen pockets of it in shallow areas from Cloverdale to Monte Rio. It’s nothing new, he said, recalling algal masses he encountered as a kid playing on the river.

Next week, the Sonoma County Department of Health Services will resume monitoring for bacteria, taking weekly water samples at nine beaches along the river from Cloverdale to Monte Rio. River boosters and businesses are worried that low flows may concentrate pollutants, and some will be watching the test results posted at

In 17 sampling dates last year from Memorial Day through Labor Day, there were just three advisories, all indicating the beach at Cloverdale River Park was open but swimming was not advised because of bacteria levels exceeding state guidelines. The bacteria were not associated with a human sewage release.

Sonoma County Regional Parks operates five riverfront parks and will also handle Del Rio Beach in Healdsburg this summer. Water at park beaches will mostly be at wading depth, 2 to 3 feet, but also can drop off abruptly to 8 or 10 feet at some beaches, said Bert Whitaker, county park manager.

Even at lower flows, the river has a deceptively strong current in some places, he warned. Free loaner life jackets will once again be available at county park beaches. There were two reported drownings on the river last year, neither at a county park, Whitaker said.

The dam at Healdsburg Veterans Memorial Beach will not be erected this summer because of rehabilitation work on Healdsburg Memorial Bridge, as was the case last year, he said.

Summer dams will go up June 15, a date set by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, at Johnson’s Beach in Guerneville and at Vacation Beach about 3.5 miles farther downstream. But as much as local vacation-rental home owners and other businesses would like to know, the Russian River Recreation and Park District can’t say when the lagoons behind the dams will be full, said Paige MacDonell, district administrator.

Lower flows may take longer to fill the lagoons, she said, and the district is not allowed to let the filling reduce downstream water levels by more than one-tenth of a foot every 15 minutes.

One week’s time “can make a big difference” for visitor-dependent businesses, MacDonell said.

Laba, at the start of his 15th season renting inflatable canoes, said he expects business to pick up after Memorial Day, admittedly with a new level of uncertainty.

Potential customers call almost every day asking if there is enough water, he said. Canoes may occasionally rub the gravel, but there will be pools deep enough for swimming or back floating beside a drifting boat.

“Awesome day,” said Stille, the Lufthansa pilot. He’ll recommend the Russian River to his flying colleagues, he said.

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

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