National Marine Fisheries Service says amount of water must be cut in winter to help juvenile salmon
By BOB NORBERG
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Federal regulators have ordered Sonoma County to reduce the amount of water flowing down the Russian River and Dry Creek and to rebuild Dry Creek habitat to spur the recovery of steelhead and salmon.
The National Marine Fisheries Service also is ordering the Sonoma County Water Agency to find an alternative to breaching the sandbar at the mouth of the Russian River, a procedure that destroys a fresh-water lagoon that forms naturally there.
Steelhead and chinook salmon are listed as threatened and coho as endangered on the Endangered Species List.
“It’s an important document for the recovery of the coho salmon and steelhead,” said Bill Hearn, a National Marine Fisheries biologist. “It looks like the project doesn’t have a significant impact on chinook, but it has huge ramifications to the recovery of coho and steelhead.”
The program could cost up to $100 million over 15 years and would be paid for with local domestic-use water rates and federal funds, said Grant Davis, the Water Agency assistant general manager.
The reduced Russian River flows, however, are being studied by residents of the lower river, whose concern for the fishery is matched by a concern for the impact on recreation.
“We could be looking at a whole lot less water if they are going to reduce the flows,” said Don McEnhill of Russian Riverkeepers. “They are not the people who have to pay refunds to customers who don’t have a good time.”
It is also reviving a citizens group that opposed a low-flow proposal four years ago.
“We will be looking at it and develop a plan to stop the implementation of it, if that is what we want to do,” said Royce Brooks of Guerneville.
The federal Biological Opinion, released under the federal Endangered Species Act, will be discussed Wednesday at a 4 p.m. meeting of the Public Policy Facilitating Committee, made up of representatives of local, state and federal agencies. The session is at the Wells Fargo Center in Santa Rosa.
Water Agency officials said they are required by the federal Endangered Species Act to implement the order, although the actions to implement it are subject to environmental review.
The opinion comes after 11 years of study by biologists and finds that the current way the Water Agency and Army Corps of Engineers run the water system is harmful to the fishery, Hearn said.
The central problem is the velocity of water in the Russian River and Dry Creek. Because of releases from Warm Springs Dam on Dry Creek and Coyote Valley Dam on the Russian River, the flows are too fast for the steelhead and coho juveniles.
The agencies are ordered to reduce the upper Russian River flows by 60 cubic feet per second, to 125 cfs, from July through October. That in turn requires reducing the amount of water released from Coyote Valley Dam and Lake Mendocino.
It would enhance fish habitat, conserve water in Lake Mendocino for the fall salmon run and reduce the amount of water flowing downstream to Jenner, where federal regulators want a natural fresh-water lagoon.
Flows from Warm Springs Dam/Lake Sonoma would be kept at the low end of current releases, about 100 cfs, and restoration work along Dry Creek would be required, primarily with placement of boulders and logs to create pools for fish.
Dry Creek, with the cold water coming from Lake Sonoma, now is a habitat for an estimated 75,000 juvenile steelhead, with a potential for 300,000 with the flows and stream work, Hearn said.
Water Agency biologists, however, conducted a fish survey a week ago and did not find any coho salmon in the creek.
“That is a concern,” said David Manning, the Water Agency’s principal environmental specialist. “Coho are not faring well. That cold water is a tremendous resource. That is a unique condition in this part of California, certainly in the Russian River watershed.”
The reduced flows from both dams would not affect agriculture and would provide enough water for the Water Agency to supply the 600,000 residents it serves from Windsor to San Rafael, said Pam Jeane, the Water Agency’s deputy director of operations.
Still, federal regulators are ordering the Water Agency to study the feasibility of putting a pipeline down Dry Creek Road or West Dry Creek Road to its percolation ponds and pumps at Forestville.
The Water Agency also is ordered to allow creation of a fresh-water lagoon at Jenner by refraining from using heavy equipment to breach the sandbar that forms across the mouth of the Russian River. The agency trenches through the sandbar as many as 10 times a year to keep the water from rising into some riverside homes.
The breach lets salinity into the lagoon, while fresh water would be more beneficial to juvenile steelhead.
Federal regulators want the Water Agency to either let the sandbar breach naturally or build a gradually sloping berm between the river and ocean.
You can reach Staff Writer Bob Norberg at 521-5206 or bob.norberg@