Russian River flooding shrinks Mother's Beach in Forestville

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Mother’s Beach in Forestville, known to draw several hundred visitors on the hottest summer days, would have a tough time accommodating that size of crowd so far this year, thanks to powerful Russian River flows that have diminished the beach substantially.

The gravelly shoreline usually offers an expanse of real estate extending well into the river channel as it bends around the Forest Hills neighborhood. But the popular beach today is a mere strip of land along the southern bank, a shock to both regular visitors and those destined to flock to the river on a summer week like this one.

“This is pretty small,” Forestville resident Ken Dale, 70, said during a recent outing with extended family, including a little girl splashing around in an inner tube at his feet. “I would say it shrank a lot, but you know, you can never predict what the river will do.”

On either side of him, friends and family groups had claimed territory several feet away from each other, but far closer to the river’s edge than they might otherwise. So narrow was the available strip of beach that each group to stake out a spot effectively blocked access to the adjacent water.

The beach’s contraction appears to be the result in part of abundant winter and late-season rains that have left more water in the river’s main stem than is typical for this time of year, with flows reaching higher up the streambank, said Scott Bolin, supervising park ranger for Sonoma County Regional Parks.

“It’s kind of the same everywhere else, even like Sunset Beach,” Bolin said. “The beach just hasn’t been as big.”

But at Mother’s Beach, the contours of the river bed and beach also appear to have been changed substantially by powerful flood waters that in February sent the river to its highest level in about a quarter century, causing substantial flooding along the lower reaches of the river as well as erosion along its banks.

Dale noted, for instance, that he and his family usually walk to a swimming spot near home but the embankment is now so washed out and steep that it’s not safe for the little ones. “You can’t do it,” he said. “That’s why we’re here.”

Along the river, trees have been undermined and washed out. At Mom’s, there are places on the embankment where new material has been deposited, and where it’s been cut away — in some cases, washing away the back fences of those who live above the beach on River Drive.

“The flood really did a number on us this year,” said one of them, Pete Gilmore. “I think just the shear force of the water removed a lot of gravel.”

“The river really has shifted around,” said Don McEnhill, who leads the Russian Riverkeeper stewardship and conservation nonprofit, headquartered in Healdsburg. “What we saw through both Alexander Valley, all the way around the Fitch Mountain reach and into the middle reach was most gravel bars lost volumes this flood.”

One gravel bar south of the Jimtown Bridge lost 5 or 6 feet of elevation. The loss there and from Mother’s Beach is just accumulated somewhere else in the river, he said.

“Rivers do two things,” McEnhill said. “They move water, but they also move sand and gravel. That’s one of their principal jobs. But most people never think about that. There’s a lot of energy, it’s moving fast. There’s a lot of energy, so that’s a lot of power.”

The county parks department operates Mother’s, or Mom’s Beach — formally called the Forestville River Access — as well as nearby Steelhead and Sunset beaches, all along 2.5 miles of riverfront in Forestville.

A short trail from River Drive leads to Mom’s Beach, where steps down a hillside now land visitors in a muddy area just feet from the water’s edge.

“You come down the stairs, and you’re in the water almost immediately,” said Gilmore, the River Road resident.

The river is wider and gets deeper faster, though a high sand bar past the middle makes for a very shallow spot that’s likely to be exposed as the water level drops later in summer.

What had been a deep channel on the far bank is now quite a bit more shallow.

“Every year, it’s re-contoured,” said Santa Rosa resident Enedina Vera, a longtime visitor. “It’s always changing, every time it floods.”

Jasmin Goble and Becky Petrow, both 28 and longtime friends from Sebastopol, said they remembered one time not long ago when there was no beach at all. A sign near the bottom of the stairs read, “Caution: No Beach.”

The water, they said, came part way up the steps, though it wasn’t quite summer yet.

But this late in the year, “I was a little surprised,” said Petrow.

“It’s just a lot more water,” said David Grass of Benicia, who came with his 6-year-old step-son, Judah Rose, of Windsor.

Katie Gregory, 27, came out to the beach twice last week after checking it out a year earlier. The difference was stark, she said.

“Everybody has to pile up along a small, little narrow beach,” the Santa Rosa woman said. “But I was happy to see that there was more water.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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