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Drinking Problem

Is a thirsty North Bay sucking the water table dry?

By R. V. Scheide


You cannot step into the same river twice, for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you.
--Heraclitus, sixth century B.C.E.

Russian RiverKeeper Don McEnhill slowly paddles a canoe up Mark West Creek, where the Laguna de Santa Rosa drains into the Russian River just north of Forestville. The bow of the craft cuts through a thick layer of surface scum as he navigates over submerged logs and discarded automobile tires. Ahead, hidden beneath overhanging vegetation, a sandhill crane freezes at the canoe's approach. McEnhill stops paddling and watches as the elegant bird darts its long, slender neck beneath the surface and emerges with a wriggling white-bellied minnow fixed in its beak. Then it throws its head back and swallows the fish whole.

The crane seems oblivious to the fact that it's feeding in a polluted waterway. For decades, the city of Santa Rosa discharged treated and sometimes raw sewage into the Laguna de Santa Rosa, leading to its classification as "impaired" under the federal Clean Water Act. But although Santa Rosa no longer discharges treated wastewater into the laguna during the summer-time, there's still a visible plume of scum flowing into the Russian River from Mark West Creek, disappearing from sight around the next bend.

McEnhill drops a monitor capable of measuring temperature, dissolved oxygen and electrical conductivity into the water and is not surprised to see that conductivity in the stream--a rough gauge of the contaminants suspended within it--is nearly triple the readings he's been taking in the river's main stem for the past several hours. He cringes, recalling a half-dozen kids he encountered swimming at the very same spot last summer. Then he shrugs. "People swim here all the time," he says. "No one seems to get sick."

If they knew what was in the water, they would no doubt choose another swimming hole. But like the sandhill crane and most North Bay water users, area swimmers are largely oblivious to the damage that's been done to the complex ecosystem known as the Russian River watershed. Like Heraclitus, we have believed that you cannot step into the same river twice, for fresh waters are ever flowing, evidenced every time we turn on our taps, flush our toilets and water our lawns. The miracle of modern engineering has transformed what was once for many people a scarce resource into something that is now taken for granted.

The Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA), the region's major water purveyor, delivers 135 million gallons of water each day to approximately 600,000 residents in Sonoma and Marin counties, a mean average of 225 gallons per resident. Most of the water is drawn from the Russian River through five enormous turbine pumps known as collectors, situated immediately downstream and upstream from Mark West Creek. To cope with the region's continuing population growth and subsequent increase in water demand, the collectors are supplemented by three groundwater wells located just south of the Laguna de Santa Rosa.

For at least the past two decades, groundwater wells, public and private, have been the X-factor fueling North Bay growth, particularly in such cities south of Santa Rosa as Rohnert Park, Cotati and Petaluma. As the Sonoma Grand Jury noted in its "Got Water?" report released earlier this summer, groundwater is essentially an unregulated resource, unlike surface water (water drawn from reservoirs, rivers and streams), which is monitored by a plethora of local, state and federal agencies. "Other than requiring a well applicant to initially show water availability, no other records are maintained by the county regarding individual wells," the Grand Jury found.

Because of this, no one knows for certain how much North Bay groundwater is being pumped from the series of overlapping aquifers in the region. Moreover, no one knows for certain how much total groundwater there even is. What is known is that in areas throughout Sonoma County, water is being taken from local aquifers faster than it can be replenished by natural percolation, a condition known as overdraft. Residents in rural areas are drilling deeper and deeper before striking water.

That's particularly troubling in light of recent and future proposed curtailments in Russian River surface flows required to protect endangered steelhead trout and Chinook and coho salmon. Since 1908, if you've stepped into the Russian River, you've also stepped into the Eel River, or at least the 180,000 acre-feet of it annually diverted into the Russian East Fork by the Potter Valley Project and stored in Lake Mendocino.

Two summers ago, PG&E began curtailing summer flows into the Russian from the Eel by 15 percent to protect the Eel River's fishery. This summer, partly as a result of last year's mild rainy season and the 15 percent curtailment, the SCWA announced it would have to reduce the amount of water released from Lake Mendocino to ensure enough water for the Russian River's fall salmon run. If Friends of the Eel River and other activists seeking to completely shut down the diversion are ultimately successful, where will the missing water come from?

The city of Santa Rosa provided a clue earlier this month when it announced it was bringing two previously shutdown groundwater wells out of retirement. For hydrologists, ecologists and other concerned water scientists, such responses underlie the real problem: for the past half-century, researchers have de-emphasized the distinction between surface water and groundwater, preferring to study water as one element in a complex hydraulic system known as a watershed. The division between surface water and groundwater made by most local planners, including those in the North Bay, is actually artificial, a legal contrivance based on common law concerning water and property rights that goes back nearly to the time of Heraclitus.

When water is viewed as one element in a single complex system, the limits of that system become readily apparent. We may be brushing up against those limits right now. How we deal with the problem will determine, among other things, our future water bills.

"Water is about to become very expensive," predicts H. R. Downs, president of the Penngrove-based organization Open Space and Water Resource Protection and Land Use, known as the OWL Foundation. "We've got to do what we can to minimize that."

Downs and other OWL members first became concerned with groundwater issues in the late 1990s, when Penngrove wells began running dry, forcing some residents to truck water in. Concerned that excessive urbanization was paving over vital aquifer recharge areas, the group sued the city of Rohnert Park in 2000, successfully blocking plans for further urbanization near their town. Since then, OWL has been a key player in forcing Sonoma County to insert a groundwater element into the 2020 general plan, scheduled for revision early next year. Amazingly, the current plan lacks such an element.

"We have a single finite water resource, that's really the way we have to think about it," Downs says. "Surface water and groundwater are the same thing."

According to UC Davis geologist Jeffrey Mount's 1995 book California Rivers and Streams, the history of the state's rivers begins roughly 1 billion years ago. The 110-mile-long Russian River cuts through a mélange of muddy sandstone and chert known as the Franciscan Formation, thought to have formed on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean some 100 million years ago. Today, the Russian River serves as the main drainage for a 1,485 square-mile watershed, extending north from the Redwood and Potter valleys above Ukiah, south to the Santa Rosa Plain, and west to the Pacific Ocean.

Thanks to the earthquake- and landslide-prone Franciscan Formation, the river and its tributaries have changed course many times over millions of years, sluicing down coastal range slopes during the winter rainy season, carrying rock, gravel and other sediment to the valley floor and depositing the material in the Russian River's ever changing streambed and along the natural flood plain. These alluvial and fluvial deposits just below the earth's surface--in some places hundreds of feet thick--form what today is called the Russian River aquifer.

Comprised of porous sand and gravel, the aquifer acts as a natural underground storage reservoir for water. In addition to storage, the sand and gravel also scrub the water free of natural sediments and contaminants.

Beginning in the late 1950s, the SCWA took advantage of these two factors by installing a system of five collectors near Forestville that draw Russian River water not directly from the river but through the aquifer. The water is so clean that a major treatment plant is unnecessary; the SCWA merely has to chlorinate and adjust the water's pH level before pumping it into the pipes and storage tanks of its region-wide Water Supply, Storage and Transmission Project (WSSTP). At their peak, the collectors can draw filtered water through at a rate as high as 20 million gallons per day. "We essentially rely on mother nature to do the work," says SCWA deputy chief engineer Jay Jasperse.

At first blush, the collectors appear to be the ideal blend of technology and nature, helping supply the SCWA's 600,000 customers with millions of gallons of clean, fresh water daily. However, that view becomes more complicated when what Jasperse calls "seasonality" is taken into account. During the rainy winter season, enough water percolates through the streambed and runoff to recharge the aquifer around the collectors. But in the dry summer, when water demand is at its highest, the river's flow must be augmented by releases from the manmade reservoirs at lakes Sonoma and Mendocino in order to fully recharge the Russian River aquifer--a process that is anything but natural from an ecologist's point of view.

An inflatable rubber dam is erected near the collectors to store the augmented flows, which are pumped into several four- to six-feet-deep infiltration ponds adjacent to the river. The ponds slow the water down so it can percolate into the aquifer. Without the ponds and augmented flows, the ability of the SCWA to meet summertime water demand would be seriously jeopardized.

Under the SCWA's current agreement to supply water to its North Bay customers--including the cities of Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Petaluma, Cotati and Sonoma, as well as the North Marin, Valley of the Moon and Forestville water districts--the water agency is obligated to provide up to 75,000 acre-feet annually. An acre-foot is equivalent to the amount of water it takes to fill an area of one acre--approximately three regulation-sized football fields--a foot deep. It is enough water to supply the needs of two families of four for a year.

To reach this 75,000 acre-feet figure annually, the SCWA draws upon the water stored in Lake Sonoma, with a water-supply pool of 212,000 acre-feet, and Lake Mendocino, with a supply pool of 70,000 acre-feet. That water doesn't come cheap: the SCWA, the local sponsor for the project, financed their construction with long-term bond issues totaling nearly $400 million. The two reservoirs are operated by the Army Corps of Engineers, which permits the agency to draw 73,440 acre-feet annually from Lake Sonoma and 37,544 acre-feet annually from Lake Mendocino. Careful readers will note that adds up to more than 75,000 acre-feet annually. Not all of the water is sucked up by the collectors, and instead flows into the ocean or percolates into the ground.

Thanks to state and federal water-supply regulations, some wiggle room is built into the system. Last year, for instance, the SCWA diverted a total 58,739 acre-feet of its allotted 75,000 acre-feet from the Russian River, leaving it with more than 15,000 acre-feet to spare in case of an emergency.

The SCWA's agreement to provide water was first signed in 1974 and has been amended 11 times since then. Under the proposed 11th amendment, the agency is seeking to increase its allotment, along with the capacity of the WSSTP, by some 40 percent in order to cope with population growth that has more than tripled since the agency was formed in 1949. Although the amendment has been agreed upon by the SCWA's water customers, it remains in dispute, thanks in part to a lawsuit brought by the Friends of the Eel River.

The major source of the dispute? The 180,000 acre-feet of water annually diverted from the Eel River at absolutely no cost to the SCWA via the Russian River's east fork into Lake Mendocino. This received scant mention in the original environmental impact report for the 11th-amendment WSSTP expansion. Yet it is all connected. The 15 percent Eel River reduction of 2002 in part led to the SCWA's decision to reduce releases from Lake Mendocino this summer, in order to protect the Russian River's threatened and endangered fish, as required by the Endangered Species Act.

If a mere 15 percent reduction can elicit such a response, what will happen if groups such as Friends of the Eel River and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman's Associations are successful in their efforts to completely curtail diversions from the Eel? The Sonoma County Water Agency's notice of preparation for the WSSTP supplemental environmental impact report is not encouraging.

"Water demands within the agency's service area are currently approaching the limits of the agency's water-right permits and the physical limits of the transmission system," the notice states. "[C]ommunities served by the agency may not be able to provide water to meet the population growth previously identified in general plans . . . and may eventually experience severe water shortages."

Paddling upstream of the SCWA's inflatable rubber dam, RiverKeeper Don McEnhill is a creature of habit. He stops regularly to plunk his monitor into the water or cast his fishing pole in hopes of catching a two-pound bass to include in a survey of mercury contamination in local game fish being conducted by Friends of the Russian River, the public nonprofit agency that funds his position. It's one of the first local studies of its kind to be conducted.

"Most of the river was pretty ripped up at one time or another," he says. Here, in the still waters behind the rubber dam, much of the riparian vegetation has been naturally restored, but not to its original state. A healthy forest of alder, big leaf maple, willow and ash shrouds its banks, but a new plant has taken root near shores scoured clean by 50 years of relentless gravel mining: ludwigia, a nonnative water plant with innocent yellow flowers that fringes the banks clear to the Alexander Valley and beyond, creating an excellent breeding ground for mosquitoes, an ominous development considering the recent advent of mosquito-spread West Nile virus.

It gets worse. According to Dr. Robert Curry, a professor at California State University Monterey Bay's Watershed Institute who has studied the Russian River watershed, as much as 500,000 acre-feet of gravel have been removed from the Russian River aquifer by gravel miners over the years. This amount represents a football-field-sized column of gravel nearly 300 miles tall. Such a ladder to the moon would have come in handy as a natural storage reservoir if an impending water shortage is on the way. But it is gone.

In addition, increased river flows since the 1908 Eel River diversion have dramatically altered the ecology of the Russian River, which previously was reduced to a trickle during summertime. Ludwigia and summertime algae blooms rot and decay in winter and sink to the bottom, decreasing the streambed's ability to absorb water into the aquifer. According to McEnhill, the river's balance is in danger of being tilted toward eutrophic, meaning that the environment favors plant life over fish.

Earlier this year, a controversial proposal by the National Marine Fisheries Service recommended reducing Russian River flows to mimic the conditions steelhead, coho and Chinook originally encountered returning from the ocean to spawn. But as environmentalists and other advocates of the Russian River have pointed out, reducing flows tackles only one of many variables in a watershed that has been dramatically altered by humans.

Chief among their concerns is pollution, in the form of agricultural and urban runoff and wastewater discharges not accommodated by the geyser recharge project, which is already operating at full capacity. If dilution is the solution to pollution, what will happen to the fish when flows are reduced and sediment, pesticides, chemicals and treated sewage water increase in concentration? The answer is that no one knows, because it hasn't been studied.

The one constant in the North Bay's water-supply predicament is uncertainty. The problems afflicting the Russian River aquifer are, much like the water table itself, spread throughout the region. Steve Carle, a Penngrove hyrdrologist who works for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and volunteers as lead scientist for OWL, is concerned that groundwater overdraft throughout the region is altering flow patterns in the entire North Bay water table.

"It's a domino effect," Carle says. The Russian River aquifer extends into the Santa Rosa plain, overlapping with the Wilson-Grove and Petaluma formations, the aquifers in southern Sonoma County. According to an analysis of existing data Carle has conducted, unchecked growth in Rohnert Park and the subsequent increase in that city's groundwater pumping has reversed the underground flow of water, sucking the vital substance away from wells in Penngrove and Petaluma. It may even be sucking groundwater away from the Russian River.

The SCWA is aware of the potential problem, and is currently conducting studies with the assistance of the United States Geological Survey to learn more about groundwater and its role in the watershed. One element the studies are focusing on is the amount of time it takes water to percolate into local aquifers, knowledge that may become a vital part of the solution to solving the region's water supply problems if flows from the Russian River are reduced by the requirements of the Endangered Species Act, drought or some other natural calamity.

"Ultimately, what we want to do is to better describe the linkage between the basins and the Russian River," explains Jasperse, the SCWA's deputy chief engineer. "If our diversion is reduced, for whatever reason, what will be the consequences of groundwater-pumping in, say, the Sonoma Valley? We're trying to look at the whole picture. There is a connection, right here as we speak, and we're trying to understand that connection."

With a little luck, understanding could possibly avert a pending crisis. The potential flip side may not be so pretty.

"Imagine paying for water what we pay for gasoline," says H. R. Downs of the OWL Foundation. Then he retracts the comparison. We've previously demonstrated our ability to adapt to gasoline shortages by reducing our consumption. The history of water use is slightly more violent.

"If we run out of water," he says, "people start picking up guns and shooting each other."


Coming Sept. 8, the third installment of our series on North Bay water: Who will lead us to the future?

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From the August 18-24, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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