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Russian Riverkeeper works to protect, restore Russian River

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Rivers are vital. Like life-giving arteries, they deliver water for drinking and irrigation and fertile soil for vineyards and farms. They support watersheds teeming with life.

But humans are hard on rivers. We crowd their banks, dump waste in them and take out water, fish and other resources. In the process, waterways often end up reduced to narrow, dirty channels, shadows of their former selves.

When that happens, who speaks for the river?

For our longest local river, that voice has often been the nonprofit Russian Riverkeeper. The Healdsburg-based organization has spent decades working to protect, celebrate and restore the Russian River, from its headwaters above Ukiah to its final plunge into the Pacific at Jenner, 110 miles below.

On a recent winter day, Don McEnhill stopped his mud-spattered pickup on a narrow dirt levee high above the river. The spot is at an old mining site, the Hanson gravel pits near Windsor. With staff and a hydrological engineer, Riverkeeper’s chief executive was laying 80 feet of cable through dense brush down a steep bank to set up a water measurement sensor.

Below him was a chain of four wide lakes, the largest as big as a football stadium. The lakes, McEnhill explained, aren’t what they appear to be. They’re actually 30- to 40-foot-deep holes, left when the river gravel deposits were dug out and hauled away.

For a century and a half, gravel has been mined up and down the river and shipped south, to build much of the Bay Area. It’s even in the base of the Golden Gate bridge towers.

The old gravel pits are now filled with water and sediments, including toxic mercury from native ore upstream and runoff nutrients like phosphorus. The Russian River watershed once had dozens of mercury mines, McEnhill said.

Riverkeeper has been working for more than a decade to restore the Hanson property, which is just downriver from the giant wellheads that supply water to Windsor. Tall levees and barriers built to keep the river out of the aging pits are badly eroding, and in some places have been breached altogether.

After a decade of legal wrangling, land deals, planning and environmental reviews, Riverkeeper is now moving ahead with local firm GHD Engineering to restore more than 320 acres of riverfront here.

“The Hanson property is one of the more ambitious things we’ve tried,” McEnhill said. “This restoration is not only good because it cleans up a section of river, it also dovetails with eventual public use.”

In addition to restoring the riverbank, Riverkeeper will create the largest public access park on the entire waterway as part of the Sonoma County Regional Parks master plan.

“We’ll have about 5 to 6 acres in all,” said Ken Tam, a Regional Parks planner, “with year-round horse, pedestrian and bike trails; some seasonal trails that are subject to flooding; kayak access; a boat ramp and launch and a campground.”

“The Riverkeepers are great partners,” Tam added. “They perform cleanup for the county among homeless encampments, to try and limit river pollution. They’re advocates for public access to the river and nature, and provide public education.”

Riverkeeper was founded by concerned citizens in 1993 as the Friends of the Russian River, to address pollution in the watershed, excessive gravel mining and the collapse of the river’s once-monumental salmon and steelhead runs.

Those efforts continue today. But the state of the river remains a daunting long-term challenge.

McEnhill reviewed the changes 150 years of local demands on the river have made. The river now supplies drinking water for more than 600,000 people and irrigation for hundreds of farms, orchards, ranches and vineyards.

Healthy rivers are sprawling and messy. Over millions of years, the wild Russian River carved out a network of floodplains with meandering channels and deposited rock and gravel up to 100 feet deep. Those gravel beds are vital. Water trickles through them to recharge groundwater. Marsh plants growing in them help naturally clean the water. The wide plains disperse seasonal floodwaters, limiting damage. The gravel beds are also essential spawning sites for local Coho, Chinook salmon and steelhead trout.

Today’s Russian River, McEnhill explains, is nothing like that. Agriculture and towns now crowd the flood plains and banks along much of its length.

“We’ve basically turned a 1½-mile-wide rich meander into a 16-foot-wide ditch,” McEnhill said.

The scoured channel, he said, has serious consequences for the humans living nearby.

”The narrow course increases the speed of water flow. That reduces groundwater replenishment, which lowers the water level both in the river and in the surroundings,” he said. “It increases the risks and damages of flooding and carries sediments and waste straight into the ocean.”

Riverkeeper has developed working partnerships with experts from NOAA Fisheries, the Coastal Conservancy and other wildlife and nature organizations, Sonoma County and state agencies and neighboring landowners.

Much of their efforts depend on public donations and the support of local volunteers. More than 3,000 turn out each year for Riverkeeper cleanup days. Another 350 work throughout the year on restoration projects, McEnhill says. Riverkeeper also performs cleanup for the county along homeless encampments, to keep pollution out of the water.

To give the next generation hands-on experience of the river and its importance, Riverkeeper works with local schools.

Jeremiah Kahmoson, a teacher at North Bay Met Academy in Windsor, is one local educator who collaborates with Riverkeeper on projects with kids.

“As part of our educational projects, we take students to the river to observe the full water cycle,” he said. “We remove invasive species, remove trash and debris.”

Last year, students and adults participating in a cleanup hosted by Russian Riverkeeper and Kahmoson’s B-Rad Foundation removed more than 3,000 pounds of junk from beaches at the river’s mouth.

“Riverkeepers provide incredible input to the community,” Kahmoson said. “They’re responsible for helping bring bald eagles back to the river.”

Long term, Riverkeeper’s goal is to restore some of the 80% of the river’s wetlands that have been lost in the past century to agricultural and urban development, gravel mining and channelization.

The value of putting the river right, McEnhill said, is tens of millions of dollars in ecosystem services, from recharging the region’s depleted groundwater and providing flood protection to cleaning pollution out of the waterway.

Looking to the future, McEnhill said, Riverkeeper hopes to inspire the community to join them in celebrating and protecting the Russian River forever.

Sonoma Gives

Read more stories about locals giving back to their communities

here.

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