Russian River’s future draws diverse crowd to conference

The 110-mile waterway sustains Sonoma and Marin counties, but faces competing demands.|

Environmentalists, bureaucrats, public officials, Native Americans and a patron of the arts gathered Friday to plot a future for the Russian River, the waterway they all consider a foundation for communities throughout the North Bay.

The river, which snakes ?110 miles from the Mendocino County highlands near Willits to the Pacific Ocean at Jenner in Sonoma County, is a magnet for boaters, bird-watchers, swimmers and anglers, a water supply for 600,000 North Bay residents and the main artery of a 1,500-square-mile watershed.

It also faces a host of challenges over poor water quality and competing demands to support endangered fish, tourism, water storage, flood control and human needs ranging from raw thirst to pure inspiration.

Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore convened the Russian River Confluence, which drew about 220 people Friday to Santa Rosa Junior College’s Shone Farm, located about ?2 miles east of the river in the Forestville area.

“We’re trying to create a movement,” Gore said in an interview. “And this is the starting gun.”

The supervisor’s goal in drawing together diverse interests from the public, private and nonprofit sectors is to “drive toward creating a one-watershed plan,” he said.

“It’s about owning our stake in the future.”

The crowd included state and federal water regulators; conservationists; river advocates; officials from Sonoma County parks, open space, agriculture and planning departments; city council members from Ukiah, Cloverdale, Windsor, Healdsburg and Sebastopol; Mendocino County Supervisor Carre Brown and Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins.

Dave White, former chief of the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, said he was impressed by the multilateral effort to “sit down and forge a common vision” for the river.

“This is unique,” said White, co-founder of the 9b Group, a Washington-based conservation consulting and lobbying organization. “I think they’re doing it right.”

White, who was Gore’s former boss at the federal agency, showed the crowd slides illustrating taxpayer-funded conversion of despoiled private lands into productive landscapes.

The examples of soil, water and wetlands restoration across the country are “a few threads of what has become an incredibly rich tapestry,” he said.

Opening the conference, three Pomo tribal leaders offered a prayer and song, shaking wooden rattles and speaking in English and their native language.

“We thank you for this special day,” said Lorraine Laiwa, head of the Ukiah-based Indian Child and Family Preservation Program.

“We all have this great desire to do things that are right for our land.”

Laiwa was accompanied by her daughter, Liz Elgin DeRouen, and granddaughter, Laila DeRouen, both leaders of the Ya-Ka-Ama organization, an Indian education and development nonprofit located next to Shone Farm.

Perspectives on the river came from a range of sources.

David Manning, the Sonoma County Water Agency’s environmental resources manager, showed how a tiny tag embedded in a juvenile fish nicknamed “Lynda Hopkins” enabled researchers to track it from the Russian River estuary at Duncans Mills 25 miles upstream to a man-made backwater built off Dry Creek, then farther upstream to Grape Creek.

The fish is now thought to be out in the ocean, and “we’re waiting for her return,” Manning said.

A network of 60 antennas detects tag-bearing fish as they swim around the watershed.

Penny Sirota of Santa Rosa described how Friends of the Mark West Watershed, a community group, has become dedicated “to understanding a complex system under tremendous pressure.”

The 34-square-mile Mark West Watershed has been designated a “priority conservation area” by the Association of Bay Area Governments, she said.

While some Mark West residents had been wary of regulation, Sirota said the drought and Lake County wildfires prompted the community to “sit up and take notice.”

Margo Warnecke Merck told how her family has hosted artists from throughout the United States and Europe in a residency program at their 265-acre ranch on a bend in the river in Alexander Valley.

Merck urged public officials to “welcome an artist to be part of their scientific process.”

Kara Heckert, executive director of the Sonoma Resource Conservation District, said in an interview that collaboration among stakeholders is essential to maintaining the river’s health.

“If it goes down the tubes, we’ve lost the lifeblood of our communities, the ecosystem and our local economy,” she said. “It’s not about protecting one or the other.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or On Twitter @guykovner.

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