Russian River plan calls for lower summer flows to protect fish
A long-awaited report outlining plans to permanently reduce summertime flows in the Russian River and Dry Creek to benefit imperiled fish species was unveiled Friday, kicking off a public comment period that’s expected to feature ample disagreement and controversy.
The blueprint formalizes water releases that have already been made for years at Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma, the region’s two main reservoirs, which supply drinking water to more than 600,000 and maintain year-round river flows for people and fish.
The new, six-volume environmental impact report is meant to bring the region’s water management into official compliance with federal guidelines for the Russian River’s beleaguered salmon and steelhead trout species.
But it also would nearly halve minimum summertime flows in the lower river - even during the rainiest years - a policy that triggered questions and angst well before Friday about potential impacts on recreation, water quality and other aspects of the watershed’s health.
“Our community is concerned about the state of the fish habitat, but also concerned about any impacts making low flow permanent will have on our water quality, our tourism industry, and of course on the health of our residents and pets,” Monte Rio Community Alliance President Chuck Ramsey said. He alluded to the death of a dog, which last year ingested toxic algae during a trip down the lower river. Such algae can develop in still, warm and shallow water - conditions that can accompany low flows.
“There needs to be a balance that allows us to achieve the best outcomes possible,” Ramsey said.
The new environmental report, from the Sonoma County Water Agency, tops 3,600 pages and is subject to a 60-day public comment period. It will be the focus of a pair of town hall meetings next week in Cloverdale and Monte Rio and a Sept. 13 hearing before Sonoma County supervisors, who oversee the Water Agency.
Agency officials say it is driven by a shift in thinking over recent decades about the needs of endangered coho salmon and threatened steelhead trout. While young and living in freshwater, the oceangoing fish are believed to benefit from low-velocity conditions while they feed and grow.
A guiding document issued in 2008 by federal fishery regulators ordered the Water Agency to overhaul releases from Lake Sonoma and Lake Mendocino to reduce May-to-October river levels. The goal is to slow the current and increase the chance that a freshwater lagoon could form at the mouth of the river in Jenner. Juvenile steelhead trout use such habitat to rest and feed before entering the ocean.
A drop in summertime releases at Lake Mendocino’s Coyote Dam also helps to preserve the supply of deep, cold water that can then be released in the fall to aid the spawning run of adult chinook salmon, the Water Agency said.
Without a comprehensive plan that guides such water management, the local officials each year have sought permission from the state to reduce stream flows to safeguard fish.
The drought further complicated matters, leading to additional reductions in recent years. The river reached its lowest level in September 2014, when flows dropped to 50 cubic feet per second in the upper Russian River, north of Healdsburg, and to 60 cfs in the lower river, downstream of where it joins Dry Creek, said Ann DuBay said, a Water Agency spokeswoman. A cubic foot is about the amount of water that would fit in a basketball.
Under the new proposal, the lower river could drop as low as 70 cubic feet per second from May to mid-October in years with normal rain. Under a state water permit issued in 1986, the current minimum summertime flow in the lower river is 125 cfs, though the Water Agency typically adds a buffer of 10-to-15 cfs, DuBay said.
Minimum flow requirements in the upper river would shift from 185 cfs to 105 cfs in wet years.
In the driest years, minimum river flows would remain the same, at 25 cfs in the upper river, and 35 cfs in the lower, DuBay said.
Many advocates and stakeholders are wary of the plan and its potential for putting the river at risk on a scientific basis some still question. They worry that reducing river flow will lead to warmer, more stagnant water - fostering conditions that likely contributed to last year’s toxic algae bloom. Such conditions, they worry, could harm wildlife and diminish the river as a recreational destination for anglers and boaters
The Russian River Watershed Protection Committee, a fixture in such debates for decades, called increased algae and possible toxicity “a virtual certainty” under permanent low flows.
“The river now suffers from excessive temperature and excessive phosphorous, and the only condition holding algae somewhat in check is summer flow,” committee Chairwoman Brenda Adelman said.
But Water Agency personnel said modeling and testing of the water levels indicates recreation will not be badly affected most years. Agency officials contend historical data shows no correlation between river flows and algae blooms. Also conditions that contribute to algae growth, like high nutrient loads - fueled by urban and agricultural runoff - exist in the river regardless of dam releases.
“The Fish Flow Project balances the multiple needs of the Russian River by reducing flows to support the restoration of iconic salmon and steelhead, while still providing drinking water for 600,000 people,” Grant Davis, the Water Agency’s general manager, said in an email. “The project also meets other beneficial uses like recreation. Only in severe droughts would low flows potentially impact recreation.”
Besides setting lower minimum stream flows, the plan would:
Change the current three-point scale for gauging wet, normal and dry years to a five-point scale, allowing dam releases to be altered more incrementally according to rainfall and runoff.
Move the index used to determine rainfall and runoff from Lake Pillsbury, located in the Eel River watershed, to the Russian River watershed to more closely reflect local conditions.
Extend the water agency’s right to draw as much as 75,000 acre feet a year from the system for its consumers until the year 2040. The most the agency has needed annually was about 66,000 acre feet in 2003-04, DuBay said.
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.