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State regulators approve water restrictions to aid Sonoma County salmon streams

SACRAMENTO - With fish perishing in drought-diminished Sonoma County streams, state regulators said Wednesday they felt pressed to approve sweeping new limits on water use affecting thousands of rural landowners.

But farm representatives attending the State Water Resources Control Board meeting said part of the measure was regulatory overreach, while some west county residents said it didn’t go far enough. Others said the whole thing was rushed.

Water board members said they appreciated some of the complaints, but voted unanimously to establish the new restrictions affecting outdoor water use, and a requirement that all landowners submit reports starting next month that detail their use of stream and well water.

“This is a very extreme situation. There are already fish dying in the streams,” Corinne Gray, a state Department of Fish and Wildlife official, told the five-member State Water Resources Control Board. All coho salmon and steelhead trout need is a “trickle of water” between pools on the four creeks to survive the summer, she said.

The emergency regulation will apply, starting July 3, to about 10,000 landowners on 130 square miles across four watersheds: Dutch Bill and Green Valley creeks in the west county, Mark West Creek north of Santa Rosa and Mill Creek west of Healdsburg. About 13,000 properties will be covered by the rules.

Residents and businesses, including wineries, will be prohibited from using water drawn from creeks or wells for sprinkling lawns or washing cars, while irrigation of other landscaping, such as trees and plants, will be limited as it is in many cities.

Irrigation for commercial agriculture is exempt from the water conservation rules, an issue that prompted harsh criticism from several county residents attending the meeting and was acknowledged by Felicia Marcus, the water board’s chairwoman.

Farm Bureau representatives also objected to the requirement that all landowners submit detailed water use reports to the state. The water board, sensitive to those complaints, agreed to postpone that part of the order until a series of public meetings is completed in Sonoma County in early July.

Marcus acknowledged complaints that the action - announced as a proposal last Tuesday - had been rushed and that questions remain about some details. “I’m torn; I’m uncomfortable,” Marcus said, “But I’m not so uncomfortable I want to condemn the fish.”

Kimberly Burr, a Forestville resident who said she has volunteered on Green Valley Creek restoration projects, gave the regulation a hearty endorsement. “I’m here to urge you to go full speed ahead,” she said, suggesting the board expand the reach of its rules.

Ann Maurice, a west county water activist, asserted that the dramatic decline in Russian River coho salmon that began in the 1990s coincided with the advent of drip irrigation in Sonoma County vineyards.

“The apples didn’t do that,” Maurice said, referring to the many acres of Gravenstein apple orchards in the county that have largely been replaced by vineyards.

Albert Woicicki of Occidental fumed over the timing of the action, saying he had received a notification letter Friday from the state and that public comments on the proposed regulation closed Monday, two days before the water board’s vote.

“This is not a fascist country, this is America,” Woicicki said. “We work together.”

He asked the board to postpone its vote and “allow us to find ways to solve this. I know we can help the fish out.”

The irrigation exemption for agriculture drew some of the sharpest public comments on the day.

Woicicki accused the state of turning a “blind eye” as “grape growers have been sucking water out of our aquifer.” The apple grower said his well water level has dropped 20 feet in the last seven years as grapes were planted near his property.

Larry Hanson of Forestville displayed a map indicating that vineyards had displaced forests at the top of the Mark West Creek watershed. “We do think you’re missing the mark,” he said, of the exemption for commercial agriculture.

Farming interests strongly protested the mandatory reporting of water use, a step that state officials have acknowledged could serve as the foundation for tighter restrictions.

Tito Sasaki, a Sonoma Valley grape grower and chairman of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s Water Committee, said there was “no way” he could submit a water-use report within the required 30 days.

“What good is it to pull a figure from thin air?” he asked, referring to officials’ assurances that residents and grape growers would be allowed to estimate their water use, based on information the board said it will provide.

Landowners will not be required to install water meters, officials said.

Danny Merkley, director of water resources for the California Farm Bureau Federation, said he was not clear on the intent of the regulation. He also questioned the accuracy of the state’s population estimates for coho salmon in the Russian River.

Merkley called the determination that groundwater pumping lowers stream levels - the conclusion at the heart of the state regulators call for action - was “extremely problematic.”

Erin Ragazzi, environmental program manager for the water board, said the water use reports, including the location of wells, would help define which diversions are connected to streams.

“We have a dearth of information,” she said.

Water curtailments could be the next step if the new regulations fail to preserve summer stream flows, officials said. Ragazzi said the curtailments could be determined on a “quick and dirty basis,” using well locations, water-use logs and geology.

Eric Larson, regional environmental program manager for the Department of Fish and Wildlife, explained that coho salmon live in the streams where they hatched for the first year of their three-year lifespan.

Nearly 200 adult coho returned to the Russian River basin during the winter of 2014-15, according to agency estimates, down from about 300 the previous winter, Larson said. About 550 coho returned in the winter of 2012-13, the largest number since 2000-01.

In 2009-10, about 20 fish returned, he said.

Nearly $10 million has been spent on habitat restoration projects in the four watersheds in the past 10 years, Larson said.

A map-based tool for landowners and water users to determine if they are in one of the watersheds is available at www.waterboards.ca.gov/waterrights/water_issues/programs/drought/docs/russian _river/#lookup.

Information on the water use regulation is available by calling 916-322-8422.

Community meetings on the rules are planned in Occidental, Healdsburg, Forestville and Santa Rosa the second week of July.

You can reach Staff ?Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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