By EFREN CARRILLO
Efren Carrillo is chairman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and chairman of the Water Agency board of directors.
Some people would have you believe that the Sonoma County Water Agency is going to build a dam made of sand at the mouth of the Russian River while polluting river water and preventing visitors from using beautiful Goat Rock State Beach.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, the Water Agency is changing the way it manages the estuary (where the Russian River meets the Pacific Ocean at Jenner). But the Water Agency will not close the sandbar. It won’t be doing anything that will add pollutants to the river, and it will do everything possible to ensure that people (and seals) continue to spend time at Goat Rock. And none of these changes are being done thoughtlessly. They are based on extensive studies and monitoring (to the tune of about $950,000 a year).
The truth is the new estuary management regime is a laudable attempt to help save threatened steelhead and endangered coho salmon in the Russian River from extinction.
To distill more than 10 years of studies into two sentences: Scientists have found that coastal California rivers with summertime freshwater lagoons provide abundant habitat for young steelhead waiting to migrate to the ocean. In a 2008 mandate known as the Russian River biological opinion, the National Marine Fisheries Service — a federal regulatory agency charged with protecting listed fish — required that when the sandbar at the estuary closes naturally in the summer, the Water Agency must manage it to allow a freshwater lagoon to form.
A little background: Since the mid-1990s, the Water Agency has been charged with opening the sandbar when it closes to prevent rising river waters from flooding low-lying properties in the Jenner area. This is done by a bulldozer or backhoe operator cutting a straight, deep channel across the sandbar. Under the new plan, when the sandbar closes and water levels start to rise, a shallow channel will be cut at an angle across the sandbar. This will allow river water to flow out, while reducing the amount of salt water entering the estuary. Over time, a freshwater lagoon will temporarily form.
I was skeptical when I first heard about this mandate. But the Water Agency hired a well-respected coastal engineering firm to develop a plan for designing an outlet channel that can be safely created by one or two bulldozers or backhoes.
Let’s also be clear about water quality. An extensive environmental impact report analyzing the new estuary management plan identified existing problems with river water quality. Sadly, this is not a surprise. The Russian River is a depository for runoff from aging septic systems and a variety of other sources, including the gunk many people dump into storm drains. Creating a freshwater lagoon at the estuary won’t add new sources of pollutants, but because water will take longer to flow through the lagoon, there may be an increase in the amount of time (and in the levels of) nutrients and bacteria that potentially degrade water quality. Folks concerned about water quality could better spend their time persuading neighbors to upgrade sewer systems than arguing about an EIR that simply points out the problems.
That being said, if the Water Agency’s ongoing, extensive monitoring reveals water quality or fish problems, it will consult with National Marine Fisheries Service and the California Department of Fish and Game (the state agency charged with protecting salmon and steelhead) and can make changes based on this information.
Other species are protected in the plan, too, including humans. The Water Agency has obtained or will obtain permits from seven state and federal agencies that include many restrictions. For example, to limit disruption to park visitors, the Water Agency refrains from working on the outlet channel on holidays and Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. To protect seals and sea lions, the Water Agency must comply with an extensive monitoring plan and is prohibited from any work when young seal pups are on the beach.
It should be clear that the Water Agency isn’t doing any of this on a whim. It can be miserable spending hours in a boat on a fog-covered estuary counting and measuring fish. It can be dangerous operating a backhoe in the rain on a sandbar with the ocean on one side and the deep river on the other, while carefully cutting an outlet channel. It is expensive to conduct EIRs and obtain multiple permits. But the Water Agency is committed to environmental stewardship and to the restoration of steelhead and coho in the Russian River watershed while at the same time continuing to provide high-quality reliable water to 600,000 people in the North Bay. Compliance with the biological opinion is critical in achieving these goals.