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D'Eel Denial

[whitespace] What will happen when diversions from the Eel River start to dry up?

By Janet Wells

WHILE SANTA ROSA city officials mull over an ordinance to prohibit water waste, a far bigger water issue is brewing that may ultimately make Santa Rosa wish that it hadn't agreed to ship 4 billion gallons a year of highly treated, highly usable, and potentially highly valuable wastewater to the Geysers steam fields.

The Eel River diversions to the Russian River, a neat engineering trick that steals from one river to feed another, has had environmentalists fuming for years. What started in 1908 simply as a small PG&E power-generating program in Potter Valley has expanded to the point where there isn't enough water to sustain the Eel River's ecosystem.

So why not just stop the diversions? Because they are the lifeblood for much of Sonoma County and some of Marin County as well.

"The Potter Valley Project is killing the Eel River to provide excess water to fuel unsustainable growth in Sonoma and Marin counties," says Margaret Pennington of the Sierra Club.

Because of pressure from environmentalists and federal agencies, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is expected to adopt at least a 15 percent reduction in the amount of water diverted, with more substantial reductions over time.

"We believe it is preferable for water users in the Russian River basin ... to begin adjusting their water-use patterns and planting less water-dependent crops in anticipation of an eventual end to water diversions from the Eel River," the federal Environmental Protection Agency states in its comments on the draft environmental impact statement on the Potter Valley Project.

Here's where Santa Rosa's wastewater comes in: With less water available to fuel Sonoma County's anticipated growth, why not use that water for crops and urban irrigation? the critics of the Geysers solution say.

"There are some questions about water supply and the main transportation system, yet they're slapping in subdivisions faster than ever," says Mark Green, executive director of Sonoma County Conservation Action, the North Bay's largest environmental group. "There are some very strong arguments that could be made that Santa Rosa should not be issuing any permits anytime soon until they get this stuff nailed down. But there doesn't seem to be any indication of that."

CHANGES TO the Eel River diversions undoubtedly will most affect the northern part of Sonoma County. South of Healdsburg, much of the county relies on Lake Sonoma, which is fed by Dry Creek. The diverted Eel River water is considered "extra" to keep the lake full for recreational use. Lake Mendocino, however, relies almost completely on the diversions.

While water experts predict catastrophe for the agricultural economy of northern Sonoma and southern Mendocino counties should the Eel River supply dry up, when it comes to the impact on Santa Rosa, officials say it's all speculation.

"Everybody's [municipal] general plans are about to go through reworkings. Until the dust settles on all that, it's hard to say what the implications are," says Bill Mailliard, water resources committee chairman of the Sonoma County Alliance.

The city seems, however, to be bracing itself for impact, since it is evaluating expansion and upgrade of its eight water wells as a future back-up system, even though one of the wells is contaminated and the others have less than optimal quality and taste.

"It's so sad that they are looking at older methods of going out and drilling groundwater in areas that potentially have toxic plumes, instead of using wastewater on urban areas," says Krista Rector, a Sierra Club Executive Committee member.

"They are looking for more water and at the same time treating [wastewater] to a very high level and giving it away," she adds. "They could look at very creative ways of using wastewater instead of bleeding money on both ends."

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From the June 24-30, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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