California floats tighter water regulations to protect Russian River salmon
Thousands of landowners along Sonoma County’s four major coho salmon spawning streams would be required to report their use of water from both surface sources and wells under proposed new state regulations intended to protect the highly endangered fish species.
The sweeping proposal, announced this week, is aimed at about 13,000 landowners in 113 square miles of the watersheds around four Russian River tributaries: Dutch Bill and Green Valley creeks in the west county, Mark West Creek north of Santa Rosa and Mill Creek west of Healdsburg.
The mandatory water reporting would be done via an electronic form that landowners would fill out online, said Andrew Hughan, a spokesman for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, which called for the action to protect coho salmon.
The move represents a significant escalation of what had been a voluntary water conservation request of landowners along the same streams earlier this spring. But water regulators noted that state wildlife officials determined last month that those measures fell far short in protecting dry-season flows for salmon in what is now the state’s fourth year of drought.
“Swift action is necessary to protect their limited habitat and avoid extinction given the continuing dry conditions,” Barbara Evoy, a deputy director with the State Water Resources Control Board, wrote in a letter announcing the state’s proposal.
Some details, including the specific watershed boundary lines, will be determined by the water board, which is scheduled to consider the proposed regulation at its June 17 meeting.
In addition to mandatory water reporting by residential and commercial property owners, including vineyards and wineries, the proposed rules would also require “enhanced conservation measures,” such as use of gray water — from sinks and showers, for example — instead of drinking water for watering lawns and washing cars. Those water-use restrictions do not affect commercial agriculture.
By including groundwater in the proposed regulation, however, state regulators crossed into what was, until recently, a virtual vacuum in California water rules dating back to the Gold Rush era. Dropping water tables and dwindling streams in the drought have forced the state to increasingly recognize the connection between surface and groundwater levels in its regulations.
“Groundwater is included in the proposed regulation because the close hydraulic connection between groundwater and surface water in the region makes groundwater pumping a significant factor in stream flows,” a water board fact sheet said.
Sonoma County officials are now working on a local groundwater management plan, likely to include well monitoring, in the wake of the Legislature’s enactment last fall of a statewide framework for regulating underground water sources on a large scale for the first time in history.
Jim Doerksen, whose Santa Rosa-area ranch would be covered by the proposed regulation had mixed reviews of the state action.
“They are finally admitting that the wells dried up our creeks. I agree with them, ” said Doerksen, a retired Santa Clara County water district hydrologist and longtime critic of county and state water policy. His ranch touches on a mile of Mark West Creek, which once harboured abundant coho salmon and steelhead trout runs.
Doerksen said the creek started running low in 2005, about five years after grape vines were planted along it. Vineyard wells have lowered the water table, Doerksen contends, eliminating natural springs that sustained streams around the county.