Scenic river faces long dry summer, risks very low flow conditions
by Brian Leubitz
I’ll admit it: I have a love affair with the Russian River. From the moment I laid eyes upon the Jenner mouth, and then driving along River Road to a spot inland, I’ve simply been enamored with the natural beauty. The wildlife, from seals to herons and ospreys to what used to be a thriving fishery. It is stunning, no matter how you look at it.
Yet if you notice near the end of that last paragraph about the fishery, you’ll soon understand the threats that the River faces. Fifty years ago, the Russian River had one of the best salmon runs, and you could catch some pretty amazing fish throughout the river. Today, there are a few decent fishing spots, but the salmon run is weak at best.
Invasive species have grown increasingly rampant. One such invader, ludwigia, a group of mostly tropical water plants, have grown wildly, choking off the river at some points, and generally becoming a nuisance. At various times efforts have been made to eradicate, such as was documented in this USDA/UC-Davis study, but the followup has always been lacking. The invaders always return, usually strengthened by their brush with death.
But one common thread runs through all the dangers facing the Wine Country’s largest river: low water flow. Water is diverted from the Russian River for agricultural and consumer use in Napa and Sonoma counties. The levels are also highly dependent upon whether the mouth of the river is open or closed to the ocean at Jenner. Over the past two years, flow has been about 125 cubic feet per second (cfs), a pretty sustainable level. But what will happen when it dips? We need only look back to 2009, when water flows were about 50 cfs. The Russian River Water Protection Committee (RRWPC) put together a very thorough photo collection of what happened then. Click here to see their 2009 photo PDF.
So what are we looking at this year? Estimates for water flow for this summer go down as low as 35 cfs. Even in better conditions, algae blooms would be common across the river (with the risk of toxic blooms). Ludwigia would reappear across the river, possibly choking clear passage. The Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) has indicated that there would be no mandatory restrictions for purposes of conservation. But, prioritization of water resources still seems tilted away from the river in favor of agriculture and consumer use.
To be clear, there are simply no easy answers on these issues. As temperatures rise, invasive species will get worse. Water flow will decrease as snow pack becomes decreasingly effective for water storage. Conservation procedures will eventually become standard operating procedure throughout the state, but perhaps we are a few years away from that finally dawning on our elected leaders. The sooner we start making great efforts at conservation, the less harsh the restrictions will have to be when the more severe droughts hit us.
If you want to learn more about these issues and the health of the river generall, there is a May 16 (6pm) SCWA meeting at the Monte Rio Community Center. The issues regarding the low water flows aren’t currently on the agenda, but seem likely to come up. You can also contact Supervisor Efren Carillo, who represents West Sonoma County or SCWA management and ask them to put it on the agenda. You can also learn more at the RRWPC website.