By BOB NORBERG
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A river protection group is challenging the Sonoma County Water Agency’s environmental report on breaching the sandbar at the mouth of the Russian River.
The opening of the river at Jenner is intended to improve fish habitat and prevent flooding to low-lying homes by allowing the river to flow into the ocean instead of backing up in a lagoon behind the sandbar.
A lawsuit by the Russian River Watershed Protection Committee claims the report doesn’t adequately address harmful impacts and offer alternatives for recreation and water quality.
“There were too many things that were simply unacceptable that needed to be challenged,” said Brenda Adelman of Guerneville, chairwoman of the group. “There is too much that is undefined in the whole thing, which is one of the big issues. It is next to impossible to figure out what the impacts are.”
The suit also says the agency should expand the report to include its actions to decrease flows in the Russian River as required by the National Marine Fisheries Service to protect threatened and endangered fish.
“They have to do things to protect the fish, which my clients support, but they need to mitigate the impacts,” said attorney Michael Lozeau of Oakland. “They need to find the vigorous balance the statute requires, they just can’t write off swimmers or surfers or water quality.”
Lozeau filed the suit on Sept. 14. It asks the Sonoma County Superior Court to overturn the Aug. 17 action by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors that approved the report.
The report, which cost $850,000 found that water quality could decrease with stagnant estuary water backing up behind the sandbar.
“The agency believes a thorough EIR was conducted and the impacts analyzed,” said Ann DuBay, a spokeswoman for the county agency.
Russian River residents in the lawsuit, however, claim the water quality will be much worse than the impact report expects, the heavy equipment used in digging the channel will chase away seals and sea lions that congregate on the sandbar and conditions for surfers at some beaches may be affected.
DuBay said the agency is required to follow an order set down in 2008 by the National Marine Fisheries Service to create a freshwater lagoon at Jenner for juvenile steelhead, a threatened species, between May 15 and Oct. 15.
It has developed a method of digging a wide, shallow trench across the sandbar when the sandbar closes and rising water levels threaten several low-lying homes in Jenner.
It is meant to let the Russian River water flow out, but limit the amount of salt water that comes in from the ocean.
The water agency is spending $950,000 in the estuary program, most of it to monitor water quality and fish along the river from Jenner to Monte Rio.
“Our staff has been working hard in the estuary to save steelhead and we are disappointed that we have to redirect our resources to address issues raised in the lawsuit,” DuBay said.
The fisheries order also requires that the water agency lower the flows on the Russian River for chinook salmon, a threatened species. The agency does so by regulating the water flow from Lake Sonoma and Lake Mendocino. It also is creating a new fish habitat in Dry Creek for coho salmon, which are on the endangered list.
The suit also contends that the agency should have conducted a single impact report that addresses the cumulative impacts of all of the projects.
“They have not looked at the whole picture,” Lozeau said.