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Russian River Biological Opinion Summary

Dear Friends:
The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has just released the final Endangered Species Act (ESA) Section 7 Russian River Biological Opinion, designed to help restore threatened and endangered species, Coho and Chinook salmon and Steelhead in the Russian River and its tributaries.

This massive document, the result of 10 years of discussion, studies, analysis, modeling and planning, based on existing conditions, sets the stage for a 15 year recovery plan, called the Russian River Instream Flow and Restoration Project (RRIFR), which is expected to cost some $100M to implement. The RRIFR includes operation of Coyote Dam (Lake Mendocino) and Warm Springs Dam (Lake Sonoma) by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) on behalf of the Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) and the Mendocino County Russian River Flood Control and Water Conservation Improvement District (Mendocino District).

Funding will likely come from a variety of sources, including ratepayers, state and federal grants, and existing tax revenues that can be designated for this purpose.

The Executive Summary, public meeting schedules, and full Russian River BO report are at: http://www.sonomacountywater.org/projects/

There are many reasons for the decline of these species, including historic overfishing, gravel mining, development near the river and its tributaries, increased sedimentation from logging and historic agricultural practices, and changing climate and ocean conditions. The reasons also include flood control and water supply projects in the river and in Dry Creek. The flood control and water supply projects are the sole focus of the biological opinion.

Essentially, the biological opinion addresses the following questions:
Do the flood control projects operated by the Corps and the water supply and flood control projects operated by SCWA threaten to jeopardize the continued existence of steelhead, coho, and Chinook? If the answer is yes, how can these projects or operations be changed to enable the survival and the recovery of the species?

The BO finds that some aspects of flood control and water supply operations threaten to jeopardize steelhead and Coho, but not Chinook.

1. High summertime flows in the Russian River and Dry Creek

2. The high velocity of water in Dry Creek in the summer

3. The current practice of “breaching” the sandbar at the estuary during the summer

To avoid further problems, some “reasonable and prudent alternatives” (RPA) are proposed, including following:

1. Reducing summertime flows in the river below existing flows mandated by the State Water Resources Control Board’s (SWRCB) D.1610

2. Restoring 6 miles of habitat in Dry Creek

3. Creating a freshwater lagoon in the estuary during the summer months

4. Carefully monitoring both habitat and fish in Dry Creek, the estuary, and the river

5. Eliminating impediments to fish spawning or improving habitat in several streams

6. Enhancing the existing coho broodstock program

At the public meeting held on Oct. 1, NMFS staff said that “success” for the RRIFR Project was not going to be measured over time by actual fish numbers, but by habitat improvements. “Our approach is a habitat one.” – Bill Hearn, NMFS. He also noted that the RRIFR efforts would not address other restoration projects in the watershed, nor would they address erosion, wastewater discharges, runoff, hillside conversions, other water users (legal or illegal) and “other non-project activities”.

The BO will clearly have an impact on future minimum flow requirements and revisions to D1610 by SWRCB, recreational water users in various reaches of the Russian River, and potentially on future water allocations to SCWA contractors.

One of the core questions to be answered remains: if summer and fall flows are reduced in the Russian River, will the remaining water be left in the Eel River? Or will ‘undesirable’ higher inflows from the Eel River merely be used to supplement and increase available water supplies for Russian River water users? Will the Eel River continue to be used to mask the ‘over-appropriations’ of the Russian River?

There will be a series of Community meetings: 11/5 Healdsburg; 11/6 Guerneville; 11/13 Ukiah; 11/19 Jenner. See dates and locations at: http://www.sonomacountywater.org/projects/documents/CommunityMeetingsonBiologicalOpinion_000.pdf

Biological opinion 4.33mg file: http://www.sonomacountywater.org/projects/documents/Signed-RussianRiverFinal_BO_9-24-08.pdf

David Keller