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Signs of blue-green algae at Villa Grand beach just one of many local drought impacts discussed in town hall

Sonoma County health officials posted warnings at a lower Russian River beach on Thursday after finding cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, in the water off shore.

Test results from samples collected by the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board were not available Thursday evening, so it was unclear if any toxins were associated with the substance found off Patterson Point in Villa Grande. But anyone visiting the beach was advised to be alert to any slimy mats and practice care in recreating.

“Keep in mind when we talk about blue-green algae, there’s lots of different types of blue-green algae,” Leslye Choate, environmental health program manager for Sonoma County Health Services, said during a county town hall meeting on the drought Thursday afternoon.

To be safe, Choate recommended “healthy water habits,” including keeping children and pets from touching, consuming or drinking water around algal mats and bathing after recreating in water where it’s present.

Choate’s announcement was the first official word of blue-green algae in the river this year, made during a public monthly meeting on local impacts during a third year of drought.

Low water levels typically foster blue-green algae growth by slowing water flow and warming to higher temperatures.

Blue-green algae was discovered at three sites last summer, as well, as summer temperatures rose and drought-reduced streams ran low. In one area, in the Salmon Creek lagoon, toxic algae was found, as it had been the year before.

It’s just one way in which ongoing drought is affecting life in Sonoma County, officials said during the town hall, the third one held so far this summer.

Other items touched on included:

  • Regional Parks Director Bert Whitaker noted steadily increasing recreational visits to the Russian River over the past decade, meaning parking lots at the county’s river and ocean beaches are often full by midmorning on warm weekend days and draw large crowds on warm afternoons, as well. While the water level remains low, the river remains an attractive place for floating downstream and finding refreshment, he said.
  • Whitaker also noted that drought is taking a toll on groundwater wells at some parks and athletic fields, meaning some are getting brown from inadequate water. Deficient rainfall similarly has had an enormous impact on tree stress and mortality, he said.
  • National Weather Service meteorologist Brooke Bingaman said the long-range forecast continues to favor a 60% chance of a La Niña influence this fall and early winter, which would favor dry conditions for Southern California, though Sonoma County would be somewhat in question.
  • The outlook suggests the La Niña signal may back off somewhat in December, January and February, however, which are generally the wettest months and “will really tell us what could happen with our water supply for the following summer,” Bingaman said.
  • It will be October before forecasters have a good sense of the winter outlook, however, she said.
  • With Lake Sonoma at about 53% of its target storage level and Lake Mendocino at 45,6%, consumer water conservation remains “absolutely critical,” Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said.

Those who missed the town hall meeting can watch a recording at the County of Sonoma Facebook page and, eventually, as the County of Sonoma YouTube page. It was not yet posted Thursday evening.

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

Editor’s note: This story reflects the correct storage level in Lake Mendocino. An earlier version incorrectly stated the reservoir held a greater percentage of its capacity than it does.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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