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.
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.
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.”
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.