Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Critics of a permanent plan to curtail summertime flows in the Russian River blasted Sonoma County supervisors Tuesday, with many saying the long-anticipated shift in water management would devastate lower river communities and economies dependent on recreation and tourism.
A string of speakers implored county officials to rethink their strategy or risk increased nuisance and toxic algae that could severely impact quality of life throughout the county. About 80 people attended the public hearing at the supervisors’ chambers, the only one planned as part of an environmental impact report scheduled for release later this year.
Others Tuesday night challenged the science behind the move, questioning the rationale of a 2008 federal opinion by the National Marine Fisheries Service that instructed the Sonoma County Water Agency to reduce artificially elevated summertime flows in the river and in Dry Creek as a way to improve habitat for threatened and endangered salmonid fish. At issue is a proposed overhaul of the agency’s management under which releases have been made from Lake Mendocino into the Russian River and from Lake Sonoma into Dry Creek, which joins the river near Healdsburg. County supervisors serve as the agency’s board of directors.
“Nothing good will come out of a low-flow proposal,” said Linda Burke, whose family has operated Burke’s Canoes in Forestville for two generations. “This is draconian. It’s unheard of. It’s sad, and it’s disgusting.”
The plan is informed by the 8-year-old federal decision that deemed existing operations a potential threat to the habitat and survival of struggling coho salmon, chinook salmon and steelhead trout, all of which are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Federal fishery experts say juvenile fish need low-velocity streams in order to thrive while feeding, resting and building up strength to go out to the ocean. It’s also believed reducing flows would encourage maintenance of a freshwater lagoon at the river mouth near Jenner, enhancing the survival of young steelhead trout.
Reserving a cold water pool in Lake Mendocino for release each fall also would benefit migrating chinook salmon adults as they come in from the ocean and head upstream to spawn, agency personnel said.