River water levels drop to aid search for missing fisherman in Lake Mendocino

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In an unusual partnership with law enforcement, Sonoma Water officials are reducing the amount of water released from Lake Mendocino into the Russian River to help in a search for a missing man believed to have drowned in the lake with his father.

Water officials hope to calm conditions under the lake surface so that the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office on Wednesday can use an underwater robot to search for Vincent Soto, 40. The search will focus on the south end of the lake near the Coyote Valley Dam, where the man and his 62-year-old father, Carlos Soto, were last seen.

The search is expected start about 8 a.m. and last most of the day.

The Laytonville men had gone fishing together at the lake north of Ukiah on June 11. A kayaker later that day found the elder Soto’s body floating near their abandoned boat, but no sign of the son. The two men’s wallets were in the boat, as well as Vincent Soto’s keys. His pickup and trailer remained in the parking lot.

Since Carlos Soto’s death, members of his large family, known widely in Native American communities in multiple counties, have camped at the lake’s southern boat launch, where they’ve kept a small campfire burning for the missing son.

Daniel Garcia said family and friends have camped out to keep a vigil for the return of his brother’s body.

“We want to be here when he comes home,” Garcia said. “And also (we’re) trying to heal ourselves, to get through this traumatic experience.”

The light is part of a tradition in the Mishewal Wappo tribe of Alexander Valley, of which Garcia and the Sotos are a part.

“If someone’s missing and they’re not found, we keep that light going for our fallen relative. It’s just a symbol of his life,” he said. Garcia said it’s similar to what Catholics do — burning candles for loved ones who have died.

The Sheriff’s Office in the past four weeks has conducted nearly two dozen searches, including by boat, foot and sonar. It also sent in divers, but they were unable to find the son’s body.

Agency officials hope Marin County sheriff’s divers and their specialized, deep‑diving robot will make the difference.

“It would be nice to give closure,” Mendocino County Sheriff’s Lt. Shannon Barney said Tuesday. “We’re running out of options as to what we can do to locate him.”

The tethered robot will be able to search the deep waters near the dam, dropping to levels far below a diver’s capability. Its features include sonar, a camera and at times, an arm, to hook onto things and pull them up, Barney said.

“One of the areas we really want to check is the outlet on the dam. It’s 130‑ to 150‑feet‑deep right now,” he said.

It’s possible the fisherman’s body sunk to the dam’s base, where a screen over the water outlet keeps objects from washing downriver or damaging dam turbines.

If the man’s body was pinned to the screen, reducing the water release flow could allow it to rise to the surface, Barney said. The robot also needs calm water to operate properly, he said.

A Sonoma Water official said the temporary reduced water release will appear dramatic in areas along the Russian River, but it isn’t expected to create adverse conditions. Staff members will patrol the river for signs of stranded fish in shallow waters.

When asked for help by sheriff’s officials, county water officials contacted regulatory agencies, commercial operations and water managers connected to the upper Russian River to ask for input regarding the temporary level dip. Representatives reported no serious concerns and acknowledged the unique need for the operation, said Barry Dugan, Sonoma Water programs specialist.

On Monday, water officials began lowering water release levels from the lake to the dam and from there to the river. The normal 136 cubic feet per second was dropped by about 100 cubic feet per second overnight. The flow will gradually drop to an expected 25 cubic feet per second by Wednesday morning, Dugan said.

“People are going to see the river dropping,” he said. “As soon as this is over we can ramp the flows back up.”

While the water drop will be substantial between the lake and the river just south of Healdsburg, it won’t interrupt water service to residents and businesses, since much of their water comes from Lake Sonoma, Dugan said. Recreational river users also shouldn’t see major issues, although rafters will likely need to carry their crafts in areas where the water drops.

Whether the drop will harm fish wasn’t clear Tuesday, but any found to be in trouble will be relocated if possible, Dugan said. “There’s enough concern that we have staff out monitoring for fish stranding,” he said.

The river wasn’t expected to dip much further south of Healdsburg. Other tributaries feed into it, which will keep the river from falling below minimum flows, Dugan said.

Longtime water agency employees couldn’t recall such a partnership with law enforcement.

“It’s very unusual,” Dugan said. “I can’t remember anything like this before.”

Staff Writer Andrew Beale contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707‑7521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com.

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