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The east fork of the Russian River cuts a narrow and lazy path through the drought parched canyons and lakebed of Lake Mendocino east of Ukiah, Sunday, June 20, 2021. Highway 20 is on the left. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

Russian River on the brink: Lifeblood of North Coast imperiled by deepening drought

Two winters ago, the Russian River was a swollen, chocolate-brown mass, full from bank to bank as it surged toward the Pacific Ocean, gathering runoff from sodden hillsides and frothing creeks amid torrential rains.

The floods of late February 2019 were the worst in two decades. They sent roiling water into communities along the river’s lower reaches in Sonoma County. Thousands of residents were displaced, restaurants were damaged and inns shuttered mere months before the summer tourist season. The losses would amount to tens of millions of dollars.

The east fork of the Russian River cuts a narrow, and lazy path through the drought parched lakebed of Lake Mendocino's north end, Sunday, June 20, 2021 east of Ukiah. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
The east fork of the Russian River cuts a narrow, and lazy path through the drought parched lakebed of Lake Mendocino's north end, Sunday, June 20, 2021 east of Ukiah. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

Now, shriveled by another historic drought, the same river cuts a languid, narrow path through a parched landscape — a slender ribbon of water stretching from inland Mendocino County to Healdsburg, where it is widened with a shot of cool reservoir water from Dry Creek before winding west to the sea.

The lifeblood of Sonoma, Mendocino and northern Marin counties, the river provides drinking water for more than 600,000 people. It is a refuge for imperiled fish and supports a thriving recreational economy. Much of the region’s $12-plus billion wine industry wouldn’t be here without it.

“I have always said it’s the big driver of our economy, but it’s also the big driver of people’s lives. It’s the heartbeat of the community.” ― Don McEnhill, head of Russian Riverkeeper

But the river is strained like no other time in its recorded past.

Its tributaries have all but run dry amid the deepening drought, and much of the 110-mile main stem is sustained only by releases of water from Lake Sonoma and Lake Mendocino, the two regional reservoirs. There, dam managers are letting go of just enough water to maintain minimum flows that fish and other wildlife need to survive.

Both lakes are at their lowest levels ever for this time of year.

With no replenishment expected for months, and the possibility of a third dry winter ahead, water managers already have begun dialing back river diversions, suspending decades-old water rights held by hundreds of vineyards, ranches and rural residents, as well as some cities.

Affected farms have scaled back production and some have scrapped seasonal plans entirely.

The river’s prized native fish — salmon and steelhead runs bountiful a half century ago — are holding on in pockets of summer water. Some of the young fish have been scooped up by rescuers and relocated to river pools big and shady enough, hopefully, to get them through until rains return.

Under renewed stress from drought, the river of today presents a jarring contrast for those who have known it over decades as both sanctuary and engine for the region.

“That’s what the river is to so many people in the community,” said Don McEnhill, whose family cabin on the river goes back several generations. He is the longtime head of Russian Riverkeeper, a leading local environmental group that advocates on the river’s behalf.

“I have always said it’s the big driver of our economy, but it’s also the big driver of people’s lives,” he said. “It’s the heartbeat of the community.”

But the severe drought, McEnhill and others river stewards say, has bared a newly inescapable fact about the Russian River: It is increasingly unable to satisfy all that is demanded of it amid intensifying climate change and the volatile shifts in weather that come with it.

“Something’s got to give,” said Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chair Lynda Hopkins, ticking off the ways the river supports local life.

“I don’t see us being able to steward those elements in our climate reality without some innovative solutions. And what those solutions are right now, I think, is very nebulous.”

Elk walk toward a green pasture over the partially exposed crust of Lake Pillsbury in Lake County, Thursday, June 24, 2021.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
Elk walk toward a green pasture over the partially exposed crust of Lake Pillsbury in Lake County, Thursday, June 24, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

Climate change magnifies impacts

The stress comes not just from the region’s growth.

Since 1980, three years before Warm Springs Dam at Lake Sonoma was completed, Sonoma County was home to about 300,000 residents. Now, it has about half a million.

In the same period, the county saw a threefold increase in acreage planted in wine grapes, the region’s dominant crop. Vineyards cover about 60,000 acres today and act as a major straw in the watershed, drawing on both surface and groundwater.

In stretches of the river, agriculture accounts for more than 80% of the water demand, with vineyards making up the vast majority of diversion claims, according to state and local documents.

How is the Russian River managed?

The Russian River is running at very low flows amid the ongoing drought, but it likely would be dry or nearly so, were it not for human engineering.

At Lake Mendocino, created in 1958 by damming the East Fork of the Russian River outside Ukiah, stored water stored is being released to maintain a minimum stream flow in the upper watershed.

By comparison, the river’s west fork, unsupplemented, is shallow and still — and likely to go dry in stretches this season.

Flows in the lower main stem river receive water released from Lake Sonoma through Dry Creek. The reservoir was created in 1983 through construction of Warm Springs Dam northwest of Healdsburg.

Both reservoirs are operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Sonoma Water, which manages dam releases in the drier months. The Army Corps takes over during the rainy season, with a focus on flood control.

From near Forestville, Sonoma Water pumps supplies to retailers serving about 600,000 people in Sonoma and northern Marin counties.

It is also manages the river to sustain and restore endangered coho salmon as well as chinook salmon and steelhead trout, both listed as threatened under species.

River managers also seek to provide sufficient flows for recreational uses as well as available supplies for some 2,400 individual households, community water districts and agricultural interests with state rights to divert water, particularly in the upper watershed, north of Dry Creek.

The river’s history as a workhorse also has burdened it with chronic problems — from decades of heavy logging, gravel extraction, wastewater leakage, farm runoff and other abuse.

A changing climate, meanwhile, has brought more of the extreme heat waves that have baked the West Coast this month.

And drought has exerted an even heavier impact, sapping supplies in seven of the past 10 years. California’s last drought spanned five perilous years before relief came in the winter of 2016.

A vehicle under water since 2016 rusts in the arid lakebed of Indian Valley Reservoir, Monday, June 14, 2021 in Lake County. The lake holds 301,000 acre feet of water controlled by the Yolo County Flood Control District and was built in 1975.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
A vehicle under water since 2016 rusts in the arid lakebed of Indian Valley Reservoir, Monday, June 14, 2021 in Lake County. The lake holds 301,000 acre feet of water controlled by the Yolo County Flood Control District and was built in 1975. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

The region’s deepest water deficits were in the 1976-77 drought, when scant rainfall totals were similar to the past two years, which barely measured up to a single-year average of about 32 inches. In Mendocino County, where it’s usually wetter, there was even less.

All combined, the higher peak and average temperatures and the ripple effects they create on water demand — including higher baseline needs for agriculture and deeper environmental losses — are expected to make this drought and those to come worse, experts say.

“The heat is going to exacerbate the droughts going into the future,” said Jay Jasperse, chief engineer and director of groundwater management for Sonoma Water, the region’s wholesale supplier. “Those drier dries are also going to be hotter dries, and those impacts are going to continue to be felt more severely.”

Heavily managed but an enigma still

The Russian River has been tamed by large dams for flood control and water supply stretching back to 1958, when Coyote Dam was completed to create Lake Mendocino at the upper end of the watershed.

Lake Sonoma, which holds almost three times more storage, was added in the early 1980s. Smaller diversions and reservoirs across the 1,485-square-mile watershed date back to the 19th century, and thousands of property owners retain historic rights to draw directly from its mainstem or tributaries.

An abundance of trees long covered by water allows boaters to moor for the afternoon in the Warm Springs arm of Lake Sonoma, Sunday, June 20, 2021.   (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
An abundance of trees long covered by water allows boaters to moor for the afternoon in the Warm Springs arm of Lake Sonoma, Sunday, June 20, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

Some diverters only take water from the river during certain months — often during the wet season, as stipulated by their water claim — and then store it on their property until needed for irrigation in warmer months.

State regulators say no precise records exist to say how much of the water represented by those collective claims is actually used. That makes it difficult if not impossible to calculate how much might be drawn from the river at a given time.

Efforts are underway to advance understanding of demand in the watershed, looking at both surface and groundwater and their interaction. In the meantime, however, managers and regulators are operating largely on historical data, informed assumptions and estimates, Jasperse said.

“Nobody knows how much water demand there is on the whole system, and how much impact that has on the river,” he said.

Vanishing flows

Last Sunday offered a prime example of the mystery that prevails over the river’s downstream flows and their use.

The Russian River watershed, which runs through Mendocino and Sonoma counties, supplies water to cities and towns along the river as well as to cities and districts served by the Sonoma Water Agency.
The Russian River watershed, which runs through Mendocino and Sonoma counties, supplies water to cities and towns along the river as well as to cities and districts served by the Sonoma Water Agency.

Releases from Lake Mendocino were coming out of Coyote Dam at a sustained rate of 72 cubic feet per second, about three times the federal minimum required to support the river’s salmon and steelhead trout.

At the Hopland gauge, below the orchards and vineyards of Ukiah Valley, the flow rate was 52.7 cfs. By Jimtown in the Alexander Valley, it was 30.2, and by Healdsburg, it was 24 — a 67% drop over about 48 miles without any specific accounting to explain it.

McEnhill, the Russian Riverkeeper executive director, who has watched these flow rates daily for two decades, said the dearth of real-time data on diversions adds guesswork to a living system that needs more precision to survive and function as expected.

As it is, he said, “we’re driving blind and looking in the rearview mirror.”

State moves on diversions

By late May, however, state regulators said they had seen enough.

They concluded that flows in the upper river would not be able to support all diversion claims. And they did something rare on the Russian River: They began notifying more than 1,600 diverters that their rights were suspended or likely to be curtailed under looming emergency action to preserve supplies in Lake Mendocino.

During this time in 2020, a dry year on the Russian River, the water was past the knees of Isual Macias of Hoot Owl Vineyards in the Alexander Valley. On Thursday afternoon, May 27, 2021 the water is even lower.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
During this time in 2020, a dry year on the Russian River, the water was past the knees of Isual Macias of Hoot Owl Vineyards in the Alexander Valley. On Thursday afternoon, May 27, 2021 the water is even lower. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

About 800 lower Russian River water right holders could be affected by those regulations in July, as well, if Lake Mendocino storage falls low enough.

“There’s a huge amount at stake, especially above Dry Creek, if you think about if Lake Mendocino was actually to go dry,” said Don Seymour, principal engineer for Sonoma Water, which helps operate the dams. “You’re talking about trucking water into communities.”

Grape growers and ranchers, who tend to be keen climate observers, began adjusting their plans months ago in anticipation of dry conditions. In some cases they decided not to harvest certain vineyard blocks, sell off livestock or fallow fields.

“There’s a huge amount at stake, especially above Dry Creek, if you think about if Lake Mendocino was actually to go dry. You’re talking about trucking water into communities.” ― Don Seymour, principal engineer for Sonoma Water

Healdsburg’s 110-acre Front Porch Farms recently made a more abrupt pivot. The suspension of its Russian River water rights means it will have to do without its main irrigation source. It called off its popular home delivery service in an Wednesday email to customers.

“In response to this alarming information, and with our river ecosystem under threat, we have made the difficult decision to cancel our CSA program and radically change the vision we had crafted for the season,” the farm said in its announcement.

Water conditions for wildlife and fish are in dire straits as well, due to the “scant amount of flow” in the river, said David Manning, environmental resources manager for Sonoma Water.

“It just puts the entire aquatic environment under incredible stress and strain,” Manning said.

During this time in 2020, a dry year on the Russian River, the water was past the knees of Isual Macias of Hoot Owl Vineyards in the Alexander Valley. On Thursday afternoon, May 27, 2021 the water is even lower.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
During this time in 2020, a dry year on the Russian River, the water was past the knees of Isual Macias of Hoot Owl Vineyards in the Alexander Valley. On Thursday afternoon, May 27, 2021 the water is even lower. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

Standing watch and making do

Communities and residents along the upper river, roughly from Healdsburg north to the headwaters in Mendocino County, face the driest prospects as the drought deepens.

Cloverdale was the first city in Sonoma County to institute mandatory water conservation measures this year. Police and park personnel there are on alert after a resident reported someone with a water truck loading up one night in June at a city park.

It was not the first sign of meddling with municipal equipment and probably won’t be the last in this drought, said City Manager David Kelley.

“Bad actors are out there,” he said.

In Healdsburg, the dam at Veterans Memorial Beach, a popular swimming destination, will remain down for a second year due to low river flows.

At nearby River’s Edge Kayak & Canoe Trips, however, there’s been no dimming of early summer business.

Longtime manager Rochelle Collier said upgrades by new owners Dave and Kim Lockhart, including a shoreline day-use area and weekend musical acts, were planned anyway but proved to be well timed.

Collier said weekends have been selling out, even if some boaters have to pull their craft through the water at points.

“People are going to come, no matter what,” said Collier, manager for 16 years. “We’ve had them in the rain. We’ve had them in drought.”

Kayakers prepare to portage around a shallow riff of the Russian River just east of the Veterans Memorial Beach in Healdsburg, Sunday, June 20, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
Kayakers prepare to portage around a shallow riff of the Russian River just east of the Veterans Memorial Beach in Healdsburg, Sunday, June 20, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

Dutybound river advocate

McEnhill, the Russian Riverkeeper leader, spent his childhood summers at a family cabin on the river, absorbing its sights and sounds and kindling an affinity for the resource that landed him back in Healdsburg two decades ago as a one of its chief defenders.

He remembers days when tiny frogs would cover the beach by the dozens and the song of a single thrush. When he hears that sound now on breezy afternoons, it “just takes me back to being a kid,” he said.

After years of paddling the river’s reaches and feuding with polluters and water wasters, McEnhill is noticeably more frustrated than he once was with those who abuse the river. He also is demanding more urgency from those with power to safeguard it.

Water conservation measures should have been imposed a year ago, he said, after the first dry winter, rather than delayed in hopes of heavy rain this past winter. A continued pattern of extractive land use is pushing the river to the brink, he said.

“The alarm bells are just clanging, and, you know, I would expect more of our government in taking care of our resources,” he said. “There’s a duty here that we’re missing as far as making sure people have access to water and leaving enough water behind for the fish and everything else that depends on it.”

'We’ve taken it for granted’

Friends from San Francisco escaped the heat in canoes from Burke's Canoe Trips on the Russian river on Friday, June 18, 2021.  (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Friends from San Francisco escaped the heat in canoes from Burke's Canoe Trips on the Russian river on Friday, June 18, 2021. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore is another kind of river champion — a politician who voices more confidence in government and in the prospect of a revitalized river.

He acknowledged another dry year would mean a fairly desperate period for the region.

But as a child of the 1970s who grew up on the river in Cloverdale and recalled playing in the water during “days of plenty” following the 1976-77 drought, he took to heart the lessons of water conservation Northern Californians adopted then.

He believes people can adapt and embrace deeper savings.

The challenge is to get everyone to do what they can — at home and at work — combining personal actions with institutional investments and innovation that builds resilience, he said.

“It is our greatest natural resource,” Gore said of the river. “It is the only reason we have civilization here, and agriculture, and all these other benefits. And basically we’ve taken it for granted for more than a century and in many ways turned our back on it.”

Search for solutions in era of extremes

The increasing strain on the ecosystem and the drinking and irrigation water it provides has made the river’s woes one of Sonoma County’s most fundamental dilemmas — on par for some with the perennial threat of catastrophic wildfire or the region’s deep housing shortage.

Much of the attention is on preparing for a future of more volatile weather swings, including more of the destructive floods and prolonged droughts that have tested generations of Californians.

“The overarching theme is we’re managing water in an era of ever-increasing extremes,” said Grant Davis, general manager of Sonoma Water.

Prior studies indicate that every year offers opportunities to capture extra water and store it for later, both above ground and below, even in years when overall rainfall is slim, said Jasperse, the Sonoma Water chief engineer.

Water from the Russian River is funneled in to Sonoma County Water Agency holding ponds Friday, June 18, 2021, which will just cover the surface and be allowed to leach back into the soil to replenish ground water that used for consumption. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
Water from the Russian River is funneled in to Sonoma County Water Agency holding ponds Friday, June 18, 2021, which will just cover the surface and be allowed to leach back into the soil to replenish ground water that used for consumption. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

However, amid obstacles that range from the high cost of infrastructure to the elusive political consensus needed to build it, the region has struggled to make significant headway toward improved water security.

Aquifer recharge and water recycling, for example, are available, but often require large investments over many years to achieve results. Other areas may require more study.

Technology, Jasperse noted, “is not the hard part here.”

Seymour said there is no “silver bullet project out there” that will make the difference for the region, but rather a need to put “a lot of tools in the tool box.”

That requires eliminating waste, first and foremost, and using water more efficiently — changing what Gore said was a persistent “water-wasteful culture.”

It means utilizing non-potable, reclaimed wastewater more widely for irrigation — expanding the “purple pipe” network that serves agricultural and municipal customers alike. Windsor, especially, has made strides on that front.

Experiments are under way in Sonoma County and excitement is building for flooding vineyard and open space with excess winter runoff so it can percolate and recharge aquifers, Davis said.

That approach, he said, “is our future” — parking water underground during wet years like 2019 and banking it for years when lake storage is lean.

The east fork of the Russian River cuts a narrow, and lazy path through the drought parched lakebed of Lake Mendocino, Sunday, June 20, 2021 east of Ukiah. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
The east fork of the Russian River cuts a narrow, and lazy path through the drought parched lakebed of Lake Mendocino, Sunday, June 20, 2021 east of Ukiah. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

Conservation ‘the new oasis’

Another key for is the new approach to reservoir operations Sonoma Water and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have helped pioneer in recent years.

Dam managers are using sophisticated weather forecasting equipment to hold back more water in dry periods and release it, when clearly needed, ahead of the multiday North Coast storms that pack the biggest punch for water supply and flooding.

That fine-tuned system was recognized this year as a breakthrough in western water management. It has been employed since last year, when no storms were on the horizon, to hold back more water in Lake Mendocino when the reservoir’s normally rigid playbook would have called for its release.

The drought exposed lake bed of Lake Mendocino, Thursday, April 22, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
The drought exposed lake bed of Lake Mendocino, Thursday, April 22, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

About a third of the storage still in the drought-depleted lake is due to the new system, officials said.

A similar forecast model could be rolled out at Lake Sonoma to better conserve its supplies, officials said. They are awaiting word on federal funding.

Renewed interest exists, as well, in raising Coyote Dam, the 164-foot-high earthen structure built at Lake Mendocino so it could be elevated by another 36 feet, adding new capacity to Lake Mendocino — though at a likely cost of several hundred million dollars.

The cost would be steep. Davis said he is unsure it can justified, especially if a long-standing transfer of Eel River water into the Russian River is further diminished or cut off, negating the need for more capacity.

Still, requests to study the dam upgrade are on the table. And droughts can act as a great mobilizer, advancing long planned projects into fruition.

“We’re in a new universe of climate change. Our experience with drought is it’s no longer going be an incidental drought here and there. Hotter weather, drier weather, more intense storms, but less frequently, is, by all predictions, going to be the new normal.“ ― conservationist David Keller

Seymour and Davis recalled the 1976-77 drought resulted in the decision to build Lake Sonoma, adding years of storage to the Russian River system.

“With this one,” Seymour said of the current drought, “we've got to come out with something big.”

At the same time, the focus ought to be on aggressively reducing demand, said David Keller, a Petaluma conservationist and Bay Area director for Friends of the Eel River.

Sonoma County, like California, is better off in this drought because of consistent reductions in total and per capita water use over the last 30 years, experts note.

Those savings need to grow to safeguard the Russian and Eel rivers, Keller said.

“We’re in a new universe of climate change,” he said. “Our experience with drought is it’s no longer going be an incidental drought here and there. Hotter weather, drier weather, more intense storms, but less frequently, is, by all predictions, going to be the new normal.

“So that means storage for the dry season becomes more critical, and usage and demand on the system during the dry season becomes extremely critical. And demand reduction becomes the new oasis.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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