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River residents: 'No low flow'

Water agency's plan to cut Russian River volume runs into heated opposition

January 23, 2004


Sonoma County Water Agency officials made their case at a Guerneville workshop Thursday for dramatically reducing summertime flows on the Russian River to protect three species of imperiled fish.

But an overflow crowd of skeptics underscored the huge challenge facing the agency as it tries to convince west county residents of the need to transform a river that is the backbone of their economy into a narrow stream during the peak tourist season.

More than 500 people packed the Veterans Memorial Building, or stood outside in the cold parking lot to listen to the three-hour presentation broadcast on speakers. Critics of the plan waved bright yellow "No Low Flow" placards.

"The problem is that decreasing the flow would increase pollution and kill fish, the exact opposite of what they're trying to do," Guernewood Park resident Jim Vick said as he left the meeting. "We've got to stop them."

The Sonoma County Water Agency, which delivers Russian River water to nearly 600,000 people in Sonoma and Marin counties, is planning to reduce summertime river flows by as much as 75 percent to improve fish habitat.

Cutting flows would return the river to conditions that more closely resemble its natural state before reservoirs were built upstream and water released during dry months to meet urban and agricultural demands.

The low-flow plan aims to address concerns from federal regulators that existing flows, established in 1986, pose a threat to coho and chinook salmon and steelhead trout because the river flows too swiftly in the summer for them to effectively feed and thrive.

At the Guerneville workshop, water agency officials and a fisheries biologist outlined various reasons high flows can hurt fish, including that warm reservoir water dilutes the cooling power of creeks and springs that naturally feed the river.

"The simple notion that more water is better for fish simply doesn't hold true," water agency engineer Chris Murray said.

But the audience erupted in applause when Don McEnhill of Friends of the Russian River said the proposal doesn't address the impact of urban wastewater and runoff, gravel mining and tributaries turned into concrete flood control channels.

He said lowering flows would degrade water quality because there would be less water to dilute pollutants.

"The fish need cool, clean water to survive, and we're concerned this could lead to a dirtier river," McEnhill said.

Water agency officials said water quality is an issue under further investigation.

It could be up to 10 years before the Water Agency reduces river flows, assuming it gets clearances from federal and state regulatory agencies, county officials said.

Pat Rutten, a regional manager with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said existing flows will have to change but no final decision has been made about how drastic the change should be.

"We have not agreed to any flow proposal at this time," he said.

A recent report done for the water agency says the low-flow plan would primarily hurt canoe and kayak businesses in the lower reach of the river from Healdsburg to Jenner because the river would be too shallow for paddling.

But critics say the economic effects would be far greater than the 18 lost jobs and $800,000 in lost economic output that the study predicts, pointing to related businesses such as restaurants and resorts.

Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma, attended the meeting and vowed to make sure a final decision is based on the best available science and subject to peer review, but she didn't take a position on the plan.

"I'm no scientist and I'm not going to second-guess the Endangered Species Act," she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Spencer Soper at 521-5257 or ssoper@pressdemocrat.com.

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