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State regulators are asking about 650 landowners along Sonoma County’s four major coho salmon spawning streams to voluntarily reduce water diversions to protect the drought-imperiled fish species, which is hanging on after nearly going extinct in the Russian River two decades ago.

Letters issued jointly by the State Water Resources Control Board and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife were mailed this week to the landowners — primarily rural residents as well as some grape growers — along Dutch Bill and Green Valley creeks in the west county, Mark West Creek north of Santa Rosa and the Mill Creek system west of Healdsburg.

Survival of the coho is “at a precarious junction” in the fourth year of “the worst drought in recorded California history,” read the letter, signed by Scott Wilson, a regional manager with the wildlife agency, and Barbara Evoy, deputy director of the water board’s division of water rights.

“Every week is critical for these endangered salmon,” the letter stated, outlining steps — including use of alternative water sources, curbing lawn irrigation, installing low-flow household devices such as toilets and washing machines and releasing spare reservoir water — to maintain stream flows from May 1 through November or later.

“The fish need a minimum amount of water flow to live and these steps and cooperation are necessary for them to succeed,” the letter said.

The move amounts to the agencies’ first drought-related action this year on local stream use. It seeks voluntary commitments from 654 landowners to cut back on water drawn from coho breeding streams feeding into the Russian River. But the letter also warns that if voluntary actions are insufficient, the state could halt water diversions, a step known as curtailment that was imposed last year on the upper Russian River and other dwindling waterways on the North Coast and in the Central Valley.

No specific level of conservation was cited in the letter.

“We’re asking for whatever you think you can do to save some fish,” said Andrew Hughan, a wildlife agency spokesman. “If you need 500 gallons a day, can you try it with 450?” he said. “If you can’t, then you can’t.”

Asked how officials will determine if the voluntary cutbacks are working, Hughan said officials will survey the streams to determine whether there is sufficient cold water with fish in it. “There’s no other way to do it,” he said.

Water conservation along the creeks will be needed “until it rains again,” he said.

Tito Sasaki, chairman of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s water committee, said the request for voluntary conservation is better than state-mandated curtailments.

“You could say it a hundred times,” said Sasaki, a Sonoma Valley grape grower. “We don’t want to go under their hammer.”

Last year’s curtailments, imposed in May, suspended water rights for about 650 permit holders on the Russian River north of its confluence with Dry Creek near Healdsburg, forcing some growers to haul thousands of gallons of water to irrigate crops. The curtailments were lifted in November.

New curtailments for this year were imposed Thursday on some water rights holders in the San Joaquin River watershed, in the Central Valley.

“Curtailment is on the table” for Sonoma County due to the coho’s protected status, Hughan said.

Sasaki said he didn’t know how much water grape growers are diverting from the creeks at this time of year. Most growers use drip irrigation, drawing on reservoirs filled either with groundwater or stream flow, he said.

“My guess is very little, if any,” he said about growers’ direct stream water use.

Nearly half of the letters were sent to landowners on Mark West Creek (309), followed by Green Valley Creek (146), Mill Creek (135) and Dutch Bill Creek landowners (64).

The mailing list includes major landowners, such as F. Korbel & Bros. in Guerneville and the Bohemian Club of San Francisco, along with two west county retreat centers, a public elementary school, grape growers and rural homeowners.

In some cases, the state request may be off the mark. Korbel spokeswoman Margie Healy said the company no longer grows grapes along any coho salmon stream in Sonoma County. The Bohemian Club’s 2,700-acre enclave in Monte Rio draws water entirely from wells and is voluntarily attempting to reduce its consumption by 25 percent, spokesman Sam Singer said.

Westminster Woods Camp and Conference Center near Occidental has agreed to give up its right to divert water from Dutch Bill Creek for irrigation, according to the camp’s director, Chris Rhodes. The center, owned by a Presbyterian Church organization, is installing two large storage tanks that will be filled with winter storm runoff from a hill, then used to water two large sports fields during the summer, Rhodes said.

Drought-resistant turf and new irrigation equipment have been installed on one field, with the other to follow, he said. The center’s drinking water comes from natural springs.

“We’re already doing everything we can (to conserve creek water),” Rhodes said.

Healdsburg attorney Tom Passalacqua, also on the mailing list, said he removed his pump from Mill Creek several years ago and relies on a well at his home on Mill Creek Road. Passalacqua said he is “100 percent on board” with the effort to preserve coho salmon.

Richard Ingram, an attorney who lives along Green Valley Creek near Graton, said he also draws water from a well and is “very conservative” with its use.

Ingram said he would be surprised to hear of any property owner opposed to the effort to reduce water diversions from coho breeding creeks.

In an e-mail, Sasaki said many Farm Bureau members already are working with public and private agencies to improve fish habitat, and “we consider this new effort as an extension of our commitment to voluntary, cooperative endeavors.”

The Farm Bureau has invited members, regulators and other stakeholders to a meeting to discuss the state request for reduced water diversions at 2 p.m. Wednesday at the bureau office on Piner Road in Santa Rosa.

Biologists warned last week that about 30,000 juvenile coho salmon in Russian River tributaries are in danger of being trapped and subsequently dying as streams shrink and become disconnected from the mainstem. Year-old juvenile coho need to reach the Pacific Ocean this spring, while younger coho, hatched this year, need enough water to survive in the creeks until the water rises with winter rains.

Some coho will be stranded and in need of rescue, transplanting them to more favorable spots, Hughan said, describing rescues as “emergency-room actions” that are “absolutely not the solution.”

The federal listing of coho as an endangered species requires government agencies to make “a more than reasonable effort to save the species whenever possible,” Hughan said.

Coho once spawned in dozens of Russian River tributaries, but were found in only four streams last summer. A multimillion-dollar effort to restore the native fish species, launched in 2001, revolves around planting about 200,000 fish — bred at the Don Clausen Fish Hatchery below Warm Springs Dam on Lake Sonoma — each year in about 20 streams.

The Dutch Bill, Green Valley, Mark West and Mill Creek systems are now major coho restoration targets.

Dry Creek, which carries water from Lake Sonoma to the Russian River every day for delivery to the Sonoma County Water Agency’s 660,000 customers in Sonoma and Marin counties, is the only coho stream with a regular year-round flow.

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

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