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It's the Water

Where to go with river low-flow?

By R. V. Scheide

To go with the low flow, or not to go with the low flow? That was the question posed at a town-hall meeting in Guerneville last week concerning a controversial Sonoma County Water Agency proposal to cut summertime flows in the lower reaches of the Russian River by up to 70 percent in order to help restore endangered fish populations.

And for most, if not all, of the estimated 500 local business owners and residents who crowded the Veterans Memorial Building for the meeting, there was only one right answer to that question: Cutting the flow during the height of the busy summer tourist season would spell financial disaster for an area that only recently recovered from the last economic downturn. To a person, they were decidedly against going with the low-flow proposal.

"We're a community where our business owners are our residents," said Steve Fogle, executive director of the Russian River Chamber of Commerce, who added that the low-flow plan would kill businesses, jobs and property values. "We cannot let that happen."

Tim Friedman, owner of Rio Inn and Faerie Ring Campground in Rio Nido, is one of many business owner/residents who oppose the low-flow plan.

"Common sense says it will have a very substantial impact," Friedman said. "People come here to enjoy recreational activities, and the river is a big part of that."

According to Fogle, there are approximately 475 businesses employing 2,500 in the lower reach area, between Forestville and Duncans Mills, ranging from campgrounds and canoe rentals to posh luxury resort hotels. Although the proposal estimates that only 18 jobs would be eliminated by the plan, Fogle's own economic research indicates that county-wide as many as 50 businesses and 500 jobs would be lost in the first three years after reduced flows went into effect.

The proposal, a draft biological assessment prepared for the Sonoma County Water Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers by Entrix, a Berkeley-based environmental consulting firm, recommends cutting the flow to the lower reach of the Russian River by as much as 70 percent from June through October to help protect declining native populations of steelhead, Chinook and coho salmon, as required by the Endangered Species Act. The reduced flow will help keep temperatures down for fragile salmonoids, but it could turn some parts of the lower Russian into a bare trickle.

Patrick Rutten, a marine biologist and regional field supervisor for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, helped provide oversight for the environmental assessment. "The rumors circulating that a 100-year-old ecosystem would dry up and die is just plain absurd," he told the audience.

"If I thought for a moment this was going to be harmful to fish, I wouldn't do it," Rutten said later in a phone interview. "That's not what our agency is about."

But Russian River RiverKeeper member Don McEnhill thinks the low-flow rates could be harmful to fish because the report does not take into account pollution discharges from sources such as Laguna de Santa Rosa, wastewater and agriculture, which will increase in concentration if flows are reduced. He also criticized the report for ignoring "dozens of variables," such as continued unabated gravel mining of the riverbed for flood control, that can affect fish.

"How can you change one of dozens of variables and expect a change in the habitat?" he said.

Rutten agreed that the report "was not as thorough as it should be" with respect to water quality. But he added that the approval process--the plan, if enacted, will not be put in place until 2011--provides a "window of opportunity for increased scrutiny on point-source pollutants like Laguna de Santa Rosa."

Rutten also pointed out that opponents have fixated on the extreme low-end of the flow proposal, which would set the rate in the lower reach at 35 feet per second. But the proposal allows for flows as high as 90 feet per second, providing more water to dilute leaching toxins. If water-quality issues are addressed, McEnhill said he might be able to support the proposal.

"If we fix the water quality, we'd have less water, but it would be cool and clean," he said. In the long run, the low-flow proposal might evolve into something local environmentalists and friends of the river have been demanding for decades.

"We've been screaming for 10 to 15 years for a watershed-management plan, getting mostly lip service," McEnhill said. "We continue to have this piecemeal process. No one is putting everything together so we can look at the big picture."

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From the January 29-February 4, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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