By Frank Robertson
Staff Writer, Sonoma West Times
No one’s really sure what will happen this summer when the Russian River may flow at levels lower than anything seen in recent history, Sonoma County Water Agency officials conceded last week.
“We haven’t been in conditions like this before,” said Sonoma County Water Agency Assistant General Manager Grant Davis at a River low-flow workshop held in Guerneville last week to talk about what to expect from low flows this summer.
River flow reductions that were formally spelled out in a state Water Resources Control Board order this week could result in far less water than usual in the River, especially above Healdsburg, but whether a worst-case scenario materializes will depend on factors including conservation efforts now being sought from everyone who depends on Russian River water, including grape growers.
The Water Agency’s conservation outreach includes “a very aggressive effort” to help winegrowers conserve water this summer, said Davis. But all water users are now being urged to conserve and learn to live with less water.
“We’re hearing angst from the lower River, from the agricultural community and from the water contractors,” said Davis. “The Water Board hasn’t made anybody happy.”
The cuts are needed to insure adequate water supplies to keep the River flowing in late summer and early fall when native salmon migrations take place. After three dry years in a row Lake Mendocino is projected to run dry in September if conservation goals are not met. The Water Agency is now under the gun to reduce River diversions by 25 percent through Oct. 2, and is asking its 600,000 residential, commercial and municipal water customers in Marin and Sonoma Counties to cut their usage by at least that much too.
But whether River flows will have to be cut down to “critical dry year” levels starting on July 6 may not be necessary if the amount of water in Lake Mendocino is at an adequate level on July 1.
“These are kind of uncharted waters,” said Water Agency spokesman Brad Sherwood at last week’s workshop attended by about 100 people in the Guerneville Veterans Hall.
Dealing with the low flow’s uncertainties, such as the potential recreational impacts of algae blooms and a River too shallow to paddle a canoe, are now the focus of state and county agencies with Russian River jurisdiction.
“We’ve never seen the River in the state we’ll find it this summer,” said Water Agency fisheries biologist David Manning.
A fisheries monitoring plan is also part of the effort this summer. The Water Agency is planning weekly meetings with other governmental agencies this summer “to lay out what we’ve found and ask for their guidance,” said Manning. “We really don’t have any model to follow,” if the River level drops drastically below historic levels.
This week’s order calls for added monitoring of river water quality for human health as well as fisheries, with 16 monitoring sites from Cloverdale to Monte Rio. The information is publicly available online
The Sonoma County Health Department monitoring will include posted warnings if bacteria levels exceed the state threshold.
Health department monitoring staff will be looking for statistical trends “to see if something is going on,” said Walt Kruse of the Sonoma County Health Services Environmental Health division.
The final order this week postpones lowering River flows any further (if necessary) until after the July 4 weekend when some of the summer’s heaviest recreational use is expected.
An early May storm also helped to postpone River flow reductions that had been anticipated in April. The modified order still requires a 25 percent reduction in the amount of water SCWA diverts from the Russian River, but responds to public concerns regarding reducing river flows prior to the July 4 weekend. Lower flows in the river won’t take effect until July 6, instead of the July 1 date in the original order.
“I’m pleased the state board listened to Russian River businesses and made the sensible decision to reduce flows after the July 4 weekend, when the river is enjoyed by thousands of local and out-of-town visitors,” said 5th District Sonoma County Supervisor and Water Agency (SCWA) Director Efren Carrillo. “The state board also spelled out a process for addressing any problems that might arise if flows have to be significantly reduced.”
If minimum instream flow requirements are reduced to “critical dry year” criteria, the state order requires SCWA to coordinate weekly conference calls with staff from the SWRCB water rights division, National Marine Fisheries Service, California Department of Fish and Game and North Coast Regional Water Board to discuss water quality, temperature and fisheries monitoring. If problems are detected, agency personnel can recommend to the state Deputy Director for Water Rights actions to “alleviate concerns” regarding water quality, public health or fishery conditions.
The revised order also changes the measurement used to determine the level of flows in the river. The April 10 order based river flows on the amount of water flowing into Lake Mendocino. The new order bases river flows on the amount of water stored in the lake. If storage levels are at or above 65,630 acre feet on July 1, minimum flows in the Russian River starting on July 6 will be equivalent to “dry year” flows of 75 cubic feet per second (cfs) in Healdsburg and 85 cfs at Hacienda Bridge. There is approximately 57,000 acre feet in Lake Mendocino currently.
“We caught a lucky break with the weather in May. We believe that residents and farmers responded by turning down their irrigation and turning off their sprinklers. As a result, the water levels in Lake Mendocino actually increased a little,” said 3rd District Supervisor and SCWA director Shirlee Zane. “Yet even with this increase, we should all continue our efforts to significantly cut back on water use.”