Landowners along four Russian River streams to receive state order on water use

Thousands of rural Sonoma County landowners will receive orders, starting this week, to provide state water regulators with details of their use of surface and well water, the latest step in an emergency effort to protect coho salmon and steelhead trout in four watersheds draining into the Russian River.

Letters from the State Water Resources Control Board will be sent to landowners in the Dutch Bill Creek watershed in west county later this week, followed by notices to landowners in the Green Valley, Mark West and Mill Creek watersheds by Sept. 4, board officials said.

At the same time, local landowners, including grape growers, announced Monday voluntary efforts to curtail water use or release more water into the four creeks.

The mandatory reporting will require landowners to submit information - including the location of their water sources and amount of water used monthly - within 30 days or face potential penalties of up to $500 a day, the water board said.

The information is needed to estimate the total demand on the four waterways and determine if additional actions are needed to protect fish imperiled by the state’s prolonged drought, said Erin Ragazzi, environmental program manager for the water board. Mandatory curtailments on water use could be imposed to safeguard juvenile fish that must survive in dwindling pools until the rainy season, officials said.

Stream flows in the four watersheds continue to decline and without more water many, and perhaps all, of the fish will likely perish, Kirsten Macintyre, a California Department of Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman, said Monday.

“We’re on the verge of losing an entire year of salmon,” said Gary Helfrich, a Camp Meeker Recreation and Park District board member.

Starting later this week, the district, which delivers drinking water to 350 Camp Meeker homes, plans to begin pumping 2,700 gallons an hour into Dutch Bill Creek, where small pools of water holding fish are growing smaller and warmer every day. Over the next three months, that water - which exceeds the district’s needs for residents - could add about 6 million gallons to the creek, he said.

In another local development, landowner Chris Panym agreed last week to release 22 gallons of water per minute from a reservoir on his farm into the upper reach of Green Valley Creek near Forestville. None of the water has yet reached a stretch of the creek with the most coho, said John Green, lead scientist with the Gold Ridge Conservation District.

“We’re watching it,” he said.

Grape growers who own 68 properties totaling about 2,000 acres of land in the four watersheds have voluntarily agreed to cut water use 25 percent below 2013 levels, said Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers. The organization is attempting to enroll the owners of an additional 62 properties, she said.

Joe Dutton, a fifth-generation west county grower, said in a press release he was proud to sign the pledge “because it is important to our family to be a good neighbor and preserve the land, the watersheds and the natural habitat that makes Sonoma County so special to all who live here.”

Tim Moran, a water board spokesman, said Monday the notices could be issued to as many as 10,000 landowners.

“Oh geez, I thought they’d let that go,” said Pat Morse, who’s lived on Mark West Creek for the last 36 years. Morse said she thought state regulators were “overstepping their bounds,” but said she will submit the information.

Tito Sasaki, a Sonoma Valley grape grower who heads the Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s water committee, said the regulators “haven’t clarified how they are going to use the information they are asking for.”

By the time the information is compiled in September, Sasaki said “it might be a little late” to take further action to protect the fish.

The so-called informational orders were part of an emergency measure approved June 17 by the water board to protect the fish. Coho salmon are listed as an endangered species in the Russian River; steelhead are a threatened species.

Water conservation measures similar to those applied to urban residents - including prohibitions on watering lawns and washing vehicles - took effect on July 6 for the same four watersheds.

At public meetings last month in Sonoma County, rural residents complained bitterly that the water conservation rules did not apply to vineyards.

The informational order applies to all properties, including vineyards and wineries.

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

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