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Dry Year, Red tape May Lower Flows in River

By Barry W. Dugan,
Managing Editor, Sonoma West Times & News

Citing the prospect of a nearly empty Lake Mendocino and a dry Russian River by late fall, the Board of Supervisors voted this week to petition state water officials to allow lower flows in the river this summer, a move they say is critical to preserve water supplies and protect the endangered chinook salmon migration in the fall.

“The reality is that we have to act quickly to preserve the water in the lake,” said Fourth District Supervisor Paul Kelley during Tuesday’s meeting. By petitioning for a low-flow regime, “we can have the recreational uses, municipal supplies and ag uses … otherwise we could be seeing a disaster for the chinook.”

A combination of a dry rain year and drastically reduced water diversions from the Eel River have prompted Sonoma County Water Agency officials to forecast that Lake Mendocino will be drawn down to 8,000 acre feet of water by November – the lowest level ever. During the drought of 1976-77 the lake held 12,000 acre feet.

While flows from the Eel River diversion have been cut in half, due to federal restrictions imposed on PG&E’s Potter Valley hydroelectric plant, the SCWA is required to maintain minimum flows in the Russian River between Lake Mendocino and Dry Creek. Fifth District Supervisor Mike Reilly also blamed a miscalculation by PG&E of a federal ruling for the reduced flows.

“PG&E was 100 percent off in their estimates in terms of diversions and that has made a huge difference in terms of our water supply,” said Reilly, who rallied support to negotiate with PG&E and federal energy regulators to reconsider the cut in diversions from the Eel River.

Supervisors on Tuesday, acting in their role as SCWA directors, voted unanimously to petition the State Water Resources Control Board to reduce minimum flows in the river, with the goal of having 30,000 acre feet of water in Lake Mendocino by late September. The county will ask for minimum flows from Lake Mendocino to Dry Creek to be reduced from 185 cubic feet per second to 75 cfs and the minimum flows in the lower river from Dry Creek to Guerneville to go from 125 to 85 cfs.

The SCWA was granted a similar request in 2004 and officials say the lower flows did not affect recreation or fisheries on the river during that summer.

During a public hearing on the item Tuesday morning, elected officials from Sonoma and Mendocino urged supervisors to approve the request for lower flows to protect municipal supplies and provide water for agriculture. Other members of the public called for even greater conservation measures – some telling the board that mandatory restrictions should be imposed on the SCWA’s urban customers.

Vesta Copestakes, a Forestville resident, asked supervisors to “take conservation to the next step” and mandate water restrictions, suggesting that watering of lawns be prohibited. “Could we mandate no lawns?” she said. “Because it is a complete waste of water … .it will look ugly for awhile but people will adapt and relandscape.”

Healdsburg resident Don McEnhill, who directs the Russian Riverkeeper program, disagreed with the SCWA’s assessment of the effect of reduced river flows in 2004. “We saw it differently,” he said, with canoeists having to drag canoes “over every riffle,” and the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department being unable to operate its patrol boat in the lower river.

He said the agency could achieve the savings by actively encouraging conservation, unlike 2004 “when there was very little actual conservation.”

“Everyone along the river must be encouraged to reduce water use,” he said. McEnhill also joined in the call for mandatory restrictions. “We would like to see mandatory restrictions and conservation plans … it would be a tragedy to see green lawns in Santa Rosa while the lower river stagnates … and people have to drag canoes” over shallow stretches.

Jim Maresca, the former head of the Russian River Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Russian River Advocates, said reduced flows could harm the lower river’s tourist economy, which is still recovering from the New Year’s flood of 2005-06. He said responsibility for water conservation should be shared, asking supervisors to “develop methods for conservation enforcement,” including a prohibition on watering of lawns.

Not only will recreation and the economy of the lower river suffer from the low flows, but domestic users will as well. Chuck Howell, the general manager of the Sweetwater Springs Water District, said that the agency’s 10,000 customers rely directly on water pumped from the Russian River aquifer. “If the aquifer begins to drop, we have virtually no water supply for 10,000 people,” said Howell. He asked supervisors to “help us manage our resources in the aquifer … we lack the resources to conduct the studies to understand fully the recharge of the aquifer.”

Russian River Watershed Protection Committee director Brenda Adelman asked supervisors to look at the “big picture,” and suggested that one factor that hadn’t been considered was the reduction of the Russian River aquifer by gravel mining, a failure to manage the county’s groundwater resources, and no enforcement of water permits. “This river is being operated like a plumbing system … not like a natural river system,” she said.

Adelman said that officials were not considering that lowering flows would increase toxicity in the river from such things as irrigation runoff, which “causes harm to fish and causes harm to people.”

She called it “ironic” that Santa Rosa officials were not in attendance, and “just last week they asked for an increase in their water allocation.”

Before a final vote, which was 4-0 with Supervisor Tim Smith absent, Reilly said the county should consider new green building standard that would conserve energy and water, including gray water systems and stricter regulation of well permits along the Russian River.

Reilly also asked water agency officials to monitor early conservation efforts and “see if we are making the mark” on reducing usage.”

The board vote to petition for lower flows applies to this year only, but SCWA staff will return May 15 with a request to permanently amend the flow regime, outlined in the state Decision 1610, which is now 22 years old.