Drought over, Russian River and Lake Sonoma ready for summer visitors

Steve McCarthy helps his wife, Trish, out of their kayak as they return to River's Edge Kayak & Canoe, at Healdsburg Veterans Memorial Beach on Monday, May 22, 2017. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)


With the unofficial start of summer looming over the Memorial Day weekend, outdoor enthusiasts and recreational businesses alike are looking forward to returning to Sonoma County waterways rejuvenated by record rains after five years of drought.

The winter deluge transformed Lake Sonoma, the region’s major reservoir, opening more areas to explore in the lake’s twin arms that reach deep into wild country northwest of Healdsburg.

The ever-popular Russian River also has new surprises in store for boaters and swimmers. Beaches on the lower river drew sizable crowds last weekend, raising businesses’ hopes for a profitable season in the tourism-oriented region.

“We’re all shined up and spiffied up and ready to go,” said Debra Johnson, president of the Russian River Chamber of Commerce.

Monte Rio Beach was jammed last weekend and attracted a modest crowd on Monday afternoon, said Steve Baxman, fire chief and chairman of the Monte Rio Recreation & Park District.

“Everything’s great. The beaches look good,” he said.

While the winter storms ended the drought emphatically — dropping nearly 58 inches of rain on Santa Rosa — they also created new dangers.

Consistent high flows on the Russian River fell short of major flooding but still reconfigured the serpentine waterway, altering both the river’s banks and its bottom in ways that could prove hazardous, Baxman warned.

“You’ve got to be careful,” he said, noting that the river is still running higher than normal with a significant current in spots.

Swimmers and boaters should wear life jackets, Baxman said, or at least “make sure you have people watching each other.”

The river flow at Hacienda Bridge Monday was 627 cubic feet per second, nearly twice what it was on the same day last year. In January, the river peaked at a torrent of more than 52,000 cfs.

Larry Laba, owner of Russian River Adventures in Healdsburg, said he had to postpone sending customers down the river from Memorial Beach to Wohler Bridge in inflatable canoes for several weeks due to the high flows.

One of the tricky spots — a place he called the “S-turn” — no longer needs signs advising paddlers how to get through because the river cut a new, straight channel over the winter.

“One of our favorite trouble spots is gone after 16 years,” Laba said.

The nine-mile stretch of river he uses is color-coded, with fluorescent pink tape marking obstacles to avoid and blue tape showing the way to go.

David Robinson, Sonoma County Regional Parks programs manager, said the current recently was so swift that members of the agency’s 5-year-old beach patrol team postponed their usual dive trip to scope out dramatic drop-offs and other changes to the river bottom at popular swimming holes like Mom’s, Sunset and Steelhead beaches, all in Forestville.

“The river is different from what we’re used to, and so we’re trying to tell people to be cautious about it,” he said.

Among county parks beaches, only Healdsburg Veterans Memorial Beach has a lifeguard.

The beach patrol will have its loaner life vest program operating again this summer, with stations for pick-up and drop-off at the three Forestville beaches.

In Villa Grande, located at a hairpin turn in the river just west of Monte Rio, the high water obliterated much of the beachfront property at Patterson Point Preserve.

“We don’t have a lot of beach right now,” said Wanda Holmer, a local resident.

The threat of toxic blue-green algae that kept some visitors away or on dry land at times during the past two seasons remains an unknown this summer, officials said.

Heavy rains that swelled the lower river above its banks three times last winter are thought to have scoured the river bed, potentially clearing out sediments that could give rise to the type of cyanobacteria that prompted previous warnings of neurotoxins in the water, said Katharine Carter, an environmental scientist with the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board.

But it’s also possible the rains washed nutrients that had been resting on land during drought years into the river, where they could feed a troublesome algae bloom, she said.

Officials have already been checking for signs of a problem and will continue to monitor the river as summer comes on.

Scott Alonso, a Sonoma County Public Health Department spokesman, said river visitors should practice healthy water habits even without signs of toxic algae, avoiding ingestion of river water and rinsing off all family members, including pets, after river play.

The river will “continue to have sufficient water levels to enjoy recreational activities” this summer, said Brad Sherwood of the Sonoma County Water agency.

The winter rains sent Lake Sonoma to its fourth-highest level since 1984, inundating the marina, which was intentionally built 40 feet below the Warm Springs Dam spillway to be useful at low lake levels and to endure flooding at high water, said Janet Folk, the Lake Sonoma Marina general manager.

“It took us a couple of weeks to get everything cleaned up,” she said, noting that the marina building’s doors and windows are left open to let water in. The dock, with boats attached, is anchored by chains and cables that allow it to rise with the lake.

Now the marina, which rents a variety of watercraft and offers more than 300 slips for privately-owned boats, anticipates a busy summer, she said.

Currently full, the reservoir reaches about a half-mile farther up the Warm Springs and Dry Creek arms, enabling boaters to reach campsites that haven’t been accessible the past two summers, Folk said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or On Twitter @guykovner. You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.