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Photograph by Michael Amsler

Road to ruin: Gravel-mining operations on the Russian River have damaged the waterway's natural filtration system.

Water Treatment Plant

By Janet Wells

One of the Russian River's unique assets is its sand and gravel, giving Sonoma County one of the few large unfiltered water systems in the country. Water comes from wells deep in the gravel beds alongside the river and needs little treatment to meet federal quality standards. So why is the water agency studying the option of building a $500 million surface water-filtration system?

Fish, and the future, according to water-agency engineer Jay Jasperse. In order to meet summertime water demands, the agency inflates a dam to back water up and recharge infiltration into the groundwater wells, Jasperse explains. Ongoing studies with National Marine Fisheries have indicated that the dam may affect fish migration--keeping adults from going upstream to spawn, or juveniles from going downstream to the ocean.

For more than two years, the agency has been looking at options for meeting current and increased water demands if the inflatable dam is dismantled for fish habitat restoration, Jasperse said.

One avenue is to take surface water from the river or directly from Lake Mendocino--which would require engineered filtration to meet water-quality standards.

Jasperse emphasizes, however, that the agency is spending as much time pursuing the option of continuing to use the river's natural filtration system. "We're just exploring options," Jasperse says. "We don't know which way it will go."

Keller scoffs: "They are trying to blame the damn fish."

The real issue behind a surface filtration plant, charges Keller, is that gravel mining has taken the Russian River's natural filtration system to the brink of extinction, and that an engineered treatment system will give the water agency access to an expanded water supply.

"The gravel beds have been given away over the past 60 years, and now the public is going to be asked to pay the cost--$400 to $600 million, plus financing," he says.

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From the April 5-11, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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