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Background on Russian River Fish Flow Project Proposed

To All,

Here is some background on the Russian River Fish Flow Project that includes the Biological Opinion on the lower Russian River that focused on the estuary near the mouth for salmonid development.

Need for the Proposed Project

Coho and Chinook salmon and steelhead were once abundant in the Russian
River watershed. Today, coho are on the brink of extinction (and are
listed as endangered on state and federal endangered species lists and
Chinook and steelhead are listed as threatened in the Russian River
watershed.

In 2008, a federal agency (National Marine Fisheries Service) determined
in its Russian River Biological Opinion that by lowering the minimum
amount and reducing the velocity of stream flows, the Water Agency can
create better habitat for coho and steelhead. When these fish are young,
the velocity of the water in Dry Creek and the Russian River makes it
difficult for them to thrive. A state agency (California Department of
Fish and Wildlife) agreed with the federal government (it issued a
Consistency Determination on the Russian River Biological Opinion) as
coho salmon are also listed as endangered under the California
Endangered Species Act.

In order to avoid jeopardizing these species, comply with the Endangered
Species Act, and continue to operate its system of supplying water to
600,000 people, the Water Agency is asking the state (the State Water
Resources Control Board (State Water Board)) to modify its existing
water right permits to comply with this federal determination.

Starting in 2010, the Water Agency was required by the Biological
Opinion to request temporary changes to minimum instream flow
requirements on the Russian River during the summer months to improve
conditions for young salmon. Once the State Water Board approves the
proposed changes, the Water Agency will no longer have to ask for
changes on an annual basis.

Primary Components of the Proposed Project

The Fish Flow Project includes proposed changes to State Water Board
Decision 1610 in 1986, plus other technical and clarifying amendments to
the Water Agency’s water rights.

The Fish Flow Project has five purposes:
Comply with National Marine Fisheries Service’s Russian River
Biological Opinion, which requires the Water Agency to ask the State
Water Board to lower minimum instream flow requirements in the Russian
River and Dry Creek in order to improve conditions for coho and
steelhead. Improve conditions for threatened Chinook salmon, by better
preserving cold water in Lake Mendocino, which can be released for the
fall Chinook migration. Replace a measuring requirement in the Water
Agency’s water right permits, called the hydrologic index, to
better reflect conditions in the Russian River watershed. Extend to 2040
the Water Agency’s right to divert and re-divert 75,000 acre feet of
water annually, in order to ensure a reliable water supply for more than
600,000 people. Add existing points of diversion for Occidental
Community Service District and the Town of Windsor as authorized points
of diversion in the Water Agency’s water right permits.

Proposed Flows

After extensive modeling by Water Agency staff and consultants, and
consultation with National Marine Fisheries Service and California
Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Fish Flow Project proposes a
five-step flow schedule, based on hydrologic conditions (explained
below). The five-step schedule, with Schedule 1 being the wettest years
and Schedule 5, the driest, results in five different schedules of
flows.

• In the upper river (above the confluence of Dry Creek and the river):
For the wettest years (Schedule 1), minimum proposed flows would be 105
cubic feet per second (cfs) year round. In the driest years (Schedule
5), minimum instream flows are proposed to be 25 cfs.

• In the lower river (below the confluence of Dry Creek and the river):
For the wettest years (Schedule 1), minimum proposed flows would be 135
cfs October 16 through April and 70 cfs from May through October 15. In
the driest years (Schedule 5), minimum instream flows are proposed to be
35 cfs year round.

• In Dry Creek: For the wettest years (Schedule 1), minimum proposed
flows would be 75 cfs January through April, 50 cfs May through October
15 and between October 16 and December 31, 105 cfs. In the driest years
(Schedule 5), minimum instream flows are proposed to be 75 cfs October
16 through March and between April and October 15, 50 cfs.

Modeling finds that 68 percent of the time, Schedule 1 would likely be
used. In only 1 percent of the time — during drought — would Schedule
5 likely be used. Of the remaining years, Schedule 2 would likely be
used 20 percent of the time; Schedule 3, 6 percent; and Schedule 4, 4
percent. While the Water Agency is requesting that the State Water Board
lower minimum instream flow requirements, flows will rarely reach the
minimums because Water Agency operators manage flows with a buffer of
about 15 cfs to account for water loss along the river and in Dry Creek.

Determining Hydrologic Conditions

Currently, minimum instream flows are set depending on hydrologic
conditions as measured at Lake Pillsbury, which is part of PG&E’s
Potter Valley Project. Lake Pillsbury is located in Lake County, outside
the Russian River watershed. Since 2006, there has been a 60 percent
reduction in the amount of water annually diverted from the Eel River to
the East Branch Russian River (and eventually Lake Mendocino) via the
Potter Valley Project. The Fish Flow Project proposes changing the
hydrologic index to the Russian River watershed to more accurately
reflect conditions in Lake Mendocino and the Russian River.

Currently, minimum instream flows are set depending on whether
hydrologic conditions as measured at Lake Pillsbury are normal,
dry or critical. While this three-step schedule is easy to
understand, it may not accurately depict watershed conditions, nor does
it allow the Water Agency to quickly adjust to changing conditions. For
example, the hydrologic condition may be normal for several
rainless winter months, until it finally drops to the dry schedule
using the current hydrologic index.

The Fish Flow Project includes a one through five index naming system a
practice commonly used in other watersheds). Schedule 1 refers to the
wettest conditions; Schedule 5 is the driest. The proposed naming system
is a one through five index (a practice commonly used in other
watersheds). Schedule 1 refers to the wettest conditions; Schedule 5 is
the driest.

Adding two more steps in the schedule will allow for more responsive
management of water storage. This is particularly true for Lake
Mendocino during the summer and fall months when it’s important to
preserve cold water for later releases to benefit rearing steelhead and
the fall-run Chinook salmon migration. The proposed five schedules will
allow for additional, smaller reductions in minimum instream flows,
particularly in the Upper Russian River – benefiting fish and habitat
and water supply reliability.