The Russian River drains the sparsely populated, forested coastal
area that stretches from San Francisco to the Oregon border.
Along the Russian, federally funded dams have created Lake
Mendocino (at the Coyote Dam) and Lake Sonoma (Warm Springs Dam).
Locally built aqueducts channel water from these lakes into
growing Marin and Sonoma counties.
The Russian River is one of the most flood-prone rivers in
California, routinely overflowing during wet years. As storm
systems approach California, the wet bands of clouds are uplifted
by the Coast Range, releasing precipitation first and most
intensely on the coastal streams. One flood control dam is on the
Russian River and one on Dry Creek, a tributary to the Russian
River, which can capture about 20 percent of flood flows.
In addition to flooding issues, the Russian River faces other
challenges to balance competing demands for its water. In an area
that was once legacy to massive numbers of salmon and steelhead,
restoring the fishery has been a key focus, while water providers
must accommodate municipal needs as well as those of grape
growers in one of the world’s most prized wine-producing regions.
A move by the Trump administration to roll back landmark
environmental policy intended to ensure vigorous scrutiny of
federal infrastructure projects has struck alarm in the hearts
of California conservationists, particularly those striving to
safeguard North Coast waters from offshore energy exploration
Homeless volunteers collect so much trash in the Russian River
watershed — 150,000 pounds as of October this year — that the
state Water Resources Control Board sees it as a model for the
rest of California.
CalTrout has identified Scott Dam, which impounds Eel River
water in Lake Pillsbury, as one of five aging dams it considers
“ripe for removal,” especially in the wake of PG&E’s
license surrender. There is, however, a potential middle course
backed by Friends of the Eel River, a Eureka-based nonprofit
that has long called for the dam’s removal.
Many of California’s watersheds are
notoriously flashy – swerving from below-average flows to jarring
flood conditions in quick order. The state needs all the water it
can get from storms, but current flood management guidelines are
strict and unyielding, requiring reservoirs to dump water each
winter to make space for flood flows that may not come.
However, new tools and operating methods are emerging that could
lead the way to a redefined system that improves both water
supply and flood protection capabilities.
In Napa County, adjacent to Sonoma and the source of perhaps
the most expensive cabernet sauvignon outside of Bordeaux,
activists are pushing back against a steady conversion of
woodland into new vineyards. Kellie Anderson, an independent
watchdog who has harried local officials for years to step up
enforcement of environmental laws, says the county’s planning
department has ignored numerous violations by grape growers.
California is chock full of rivers and creeks, yet the state’s network of stream gauges has significant gaps that limit real-time tracking of how much water is flowing downstream, information that is vital for flood protection, forecasting water supplies and knowing what the future might bring.
That network of stream gauges got a big boost Sept. 30 with the signing of SB 19. Authored by Sen. Bill Dodd (D-Napa), the law requires the state to develop a stream gauge deployment plan, focusing on reactivating existing gauges that have been offline for lack of funding and other reasons. Nearly half of California’s stream gauges are dormant.
The project includes improvements along more than 3 miles of
dirt roads, repairing culverts and building erosion control
features designed to reduce sediment flow into the creek. The
aim is to protect gravel nests, called redds, where female
salmon and steelhead lay their eggs, suffocating the eggs as
well as clogging the gills of adult fish…
Lake Mendocino made it through a typically long, hot summer
with an abundance of water and now, thanks to an ongoing
experiment with high-tech weather forecasting, the reservoir
can retain more water through the winter, benefiting people,
fish and farmers along the Russian River.
Russian River communities impacted by the 2019 flood may soon
see some help, as a budget trailer bill signed last week by
Gov. Gavin Newsom promises $1.5 million to the area that
suffered 100 landslides and slipouts and faces at least $155
million in damage.
A white egret delicately dips its beak into a small puddle. A
mother otter and pups dive and roll in a clear, still pool.
Tiny minnows dart in the shady shallows. And all of this takes
place a stone’s throw from backyards and byways. Our local
creeks and streams are literal rivers of life flowing through
Sonoma County communities.
An influx of Bay Area visitors to Sonoma County’s bucolic
riverlands has spiked in recent years, bringing with it a
problem typically reserved for the privacy of one’s own home.
People are pooping in public.
Water managers across the state face new and more extreme
challenges as the climate warms—from balancing the sometimes
conflicting needs of urban, agricultural, and environmental
water users to reducing risks from fires, floods, and droughts.
We talked to Grant Davis, general manager of the Sonoma County
Water Agency, about how his agency is approaching these
challenges comprehensively, at the scale of the entire
Over the last two decades most urban creeks have been reverted
from straight, lifeless channels back to more naturalized
streams that still provide flood protection but are now
abundant with trees, grasses and wildlife. … Despite these
tremendous advances, the 150 creeks in the Russian River
watershed and the critters that live in them are vulnerable.
The city of Ukiah made its first delivery of recycled water
through its extensive Purple Pipe system this week, putting
about 2 million gallons of water reclaimed from local sinks,
showers and toilets into an irrigation pond just south of the
Ukiah Valley Wastewater Treatment Plant.
Most people pass by storm drains day in and day out, giving
little thought to them as conduits to local waterways — and
ultimately, the Russian River in much of Sonoma County. An
alliance of local cities, special districts and the county
wants to change that. The coalition has launched a regional
campaign to raise public awareness about the link between
surface streets and local creeks…
The ban passed last week means that about 8,000 Russian River
property owners are now looking at how to repair or replace
substandard or failing residential sewage disposal systems when
the new law goes into effect next year.
Sonoma County has hired a new ombudsman, Alisha O’Laughlin, to
help river residents deal with the new maze of regulations
targeting older sewage disposal systems along the Russian River
and its tributaries. … O’Loughlin’s hiring coincides with
county efforts to implement its onsite wastewater treatment
system (OWTS) regulations and comply with state law…
The 110-mile Russian River and all its tributaries move through
many active communities and working lands which can affect
water quality. Some of the main categories of water quality
impacts can include chemicals, bacteria, sediment, and
More than 90% of U.S. wine comes from California, despite
growth in other states’ production, and it’s putting a strain
on the environment. Throughout the region, wine producers say
they’re striving to save water and use less pesticides, among
other measures aimed at sustainable growing, as they face the
challenges brought on by the advance of climate change.
After a disaster, Sonoma Water will try to restore service as
quickly as possible. The agency already has installed isolation
valves so that it can cut off water around breaks and has some
emergency water reserves in place. It estimates that water
service could be restored in as few as three days after a
moderate earthquake. The grand jury concluded that was an
overly rosy prediction.
Last week three local entities — California Trout, Mendocino
County Inland Water and Power Commission (IWPC) and Sonoma
Water — announced they will be signing a project planning
agreement with the hopes of looking at pathways to relicense
the Potter Valley Project. The Potter Valley Project is a
hydropower project that sits in the middle of the Eel River and
Russian River watershed basins and is integral in providing
water to both Mendocino County and northern Sonoma County.
Even though the Russian River watershed has received roughly
130 percent of the average rainfall this season, it is time to
discuss the impacts of overwatered landscapes as the dry
weather returns and irrigation controllers turn on.
On Tuesday, May 21, the Board of Directors of the Sonoma County
Water Agencyand the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved
a plan to offset a fee that is likely to be imposed on
groundwater users in the Santa Rosa Plain… Under the plan,
the County and Sonoma Water would contribute up to $240,000
annually for three years to the Santa Rosa Plain Groundwater
Residents whose homes were flooded will not be eligible for
financial aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency
because state officials determined the amount of damage was
insufficient to qualify.
Two days of above-average spring rainfall in the North Bay have
forced Sonoma County officials to begin deflating the seasonal
dam across the Russian River, an about-face that comes less
than a week after the rubber dam was fully inflated to serve
the region’s drinking water system.
The February storms that swelled the Russian River to its
highest level in more than two decades did $23 million in
damage to Sonoma County roads, including more than 100
landslides and slipouts, leaving county crews and contractors
with a Herculean repair job that will take months to complete.
Facing a wave of opposition over proposed fees for using well
water, the directors of a little-known public agency backed
away from a decision Thursday and agreed to consider an
alternative plan that would exempt rural residents and cost
other groundwater users far less overall.
While flooding is clearly a problem, the extra vegetation that
thrives can lead to another problem. A hotter-than-average
summer – such as one fueled by climate change – can cause
vegetation to dry out faster. With all this natural kindling in
place, it doesn’t take much to start a fire.
You can’t see them. You can’t swim in them. But groundwater
aquifers are one of the most important sources of water in the
North Coast. … People who live in rural areas rely almost
exclusively on groundwater, and while cities in Sonoma County
get most of their water from the Russian River, groundwater
provides a critical back-up source that is used during droughts
or in emergencies.
A Geyserville property owner who launched a medical cannabis
farm has agreed to pay $245,000 in fines and penalties for what
Sonoma County prosecutors said was improper water diversion,
unpermitted grading and site work that harmed streams in the
Russian River watershed.
Russian River environmental watchdog Brenda Adelman accepted a
water stewardship award from California’s North Coast Regional
Water Quality Control Board last month in a ceremony at NCRWQCB
headquarters in Santa Rosa.
One month after destructive flooding tore through Sonoma
County, residents are waiting for the state to decide if it
will ask the federal government for a disaster declaration — a
move that they say can bring them much-needed financial aid.
We love our Russian River for its eternal beauty, its nurturing
forces, its quenching properties, its recreation and play and
its renewing spirits. We love our river — except when we don’t.
And right now we are distraught over the destruction its
breached muddy torrents visited upon us yet again.
While handing out at the Guerneville Safeway store $50 grocery
gift cards to residents affected by last week’s flood, Jeniffer
Wertz was forced to turn away several people Sunday after
running out of cards. “It was heartbreaking,” said Wertz, a
volunteer for the nonprofit Russian River Alliance. For people
whose homes, cars or businesses were damaged by the worst
flooding along the Russian River in two decades, local
nonprofit leaders say, the need for financial help is
Behind the initial damage toll of $155 million from last week’s
Russian River flood is some positive news: only 35 homes and
businesses have been red-tagged as uninhabitable. After the
last major Russian River flood, in 2006, 66 homes and
businesses were red-tagged. … The steadily declining numbers
reflect three decades of progress in fortifying river
communities to withstand floods, most notably an ongoing
program to elevate homes.
Santa Rosa officials said Tuesday that managers at the city’s
wastewater plant have been forced to release at least 250
million gallons of treated sewage into two creeks and the
nearby Laguna de Santa Rosa amid record inflow to the facility
that began in last week’s storm. The three-day deluge pushed
more than five times the normal flow of wastewater and runoff
into the city’s Laguna de Santa Rosa plant. It was the highest
inflow ever recorded at the site, according to the city.
The powerful storm that swept over Sonoma County last week
caused an estimated $155 million in damage to homes,
businesses, roads and other public infrastructure, county
officials announced Saturday. The updated assessment came at
the end of a week marked by the largest flood on the lower
Russian River in nearly a quarter century. Guernville and other
riverside communities took the heaviest blow, but flooding
elsewhere — in Sebastopol, Healdsburg and Geyserville — led to
widespread damage countywide.
But the river remains an unpredictable force, one that could
give rise to even more destructive floods in an era of
increasingly extreme weather, experts say. … County
Supervisor Lynda Hopkins has her sights on the opportunities to
tame floodwaters in the river’s middle reaches, starting near
Windsor and upstream, where it broadens and meanders more
freely in a floodplain less constricted by roads and other
A Northern California river flooded 2,000 homes, businesses and
other buildings and left two communities virtual islands after
days of stormy weather, officials said Wednesday. The towns of
Guerneville and Monte Rio were hardest hit by water pouring
from the Russian River, which topped 46 feet (13 meters) late
Wednesday night. It hadn’t reached that level for 25 years and
wasn’t expected to recede again until late Thursday night.
The Russian River has surpassed flood levels after an
extraordinary 48 hours of rainfall, and by Wednesday morning
the waters had blocked all roadways into and out of the town of
Guerneville. By 6 a.m., all routes out of the 4,500-person town
of Guerneville were blocked by the rising water, which was
creeping closer to 41 feet — nine more than the flood level of
32 feet — with an additional five feet expected.
With each storm, the rain-swollen Russian River is washing away
more of a steep, muddy bank perilously close to River Road near
Geyserville, prompting Sonoma County supervisors to approve
Tuesday an emergency repair estimated at $250,000. Should the
river wipe out the road, about 400 residents of Alexander
Valley, a famed wine grape growing area, would be cut off from
a connection to Highway 128 leading southwest to Geyserville
and Highway 101.
Heavy rains this week left Lake Mendocino, the North Bay
region’s second-largest reservoir, with an extra 2 billion
gallons of water that until now officials would have been
obliged to release into the Russian River and eventually the
Pacific Ocean. Thanks to a $10 million program that blends
high-tech weather forecasting with novel computer programming,
the Army Corps has the latitude to retain an additional 11,650
acre feet of water, and Lake Mendocino has now impounded a
little more than half that much.
Standing on a stone bridge overlooking Lagunitas Creek in west
Marin County, giddy onlookers observed a male coho salmon
swimming upstream toward a nesting area guarded by a female.
… This year’s salmon spawning season so far appears to
be a mixed bag, with some locations, such as Lagunitas Creek,
showing robust activity, and others, including the Russian
River in Sonoma County, falling short of expectations.
Dam operators are planning to store nearly 4 billion extra
gallons of water this winter in Lake Mendocino, the reservoir
near Ukiah that plays a critical role in providing water for
residents, ranchers and fish along the upper Russian River and
to communities in Sonoma and Marin counties.
Chris Brokate did not intend to spark a revolution in watershed
management when he hauled a load of trash from the Russian
River in his weathered Chevy pick-up in 2014. The Forestville
man simply spotted a need after winter storms flushed debris
from the river’s mouth onto the beach near the coastal
community of Jenner.
It has been a beloved summer destination for generations of
Northern California families, and a blue ribbon fishery for
steelhead and salmon. It has been mined, diverted, and dammed,
tapped for its water and used as a sewer. It has rampaged
during torrential winter storms and shrunken to a tepid trickle
To some it’s a source of artistic inspiration. To others it’s
an endangered natural wonder in grave need of protection. But
to most who make an annual summer pilgrimage to the Russian
River — whether for an afternoon’s respite or a week’s true
escape — it’s a place to shed worldly concerns and embrace the
season’s mandate: relax.
In California’s small coastal streams, where hundreds of
thousands of Coho salmon once returned each year to spawn, most
wild populations now barely cling to survival. Habitat loss and
intensive water use have pushed them to the brink; now climate
change and increasing competition for water resources could
send them over the edge.
Sonoma County is poised to benefit from millions of dollars in
parks, water and land conservation funding from the new $4.1
billion state bond measure approved by California voters last
week. Proposition 68 will generate at least $400,000 for the
county’s Regional Parks system and half that amount for each
municipal park district in the county.
Public agencies are hopeful that a feverish effort to deploy
thousands of straw wattles and other barriers around burned
structures, charred hillsides and storm drain inlets prevented
some pollution from occurring with storm runoff. But strategic
stream testing will help measure their success as water quality
engineers and experts gear up for what will be a long-term
campaign to protect water resources and restore scorched
watersheds into the rainy season and beyond.
Signs at Russian River beaches warning of the potential for
harmful blue-green algae in the water were being taken down
Thursday, after tests failed to detect the presence of
algae-related toxins in recent weeks. Only highly diluted
concentrations of an algae-produced toxin were found in the
river this summer even when tests sporadically came back
positive, health officials said.
North Coast water regulators are taking another run at a
comprehensive program to prevent bacterial contamination of the
Russian River, one that includes provisions likely to have
significant impacts for thousands of homeowners dependent on
aging septic systems.
The Russian River tested clean this week for a toxin related to
blue-green algae that prompted cautionary signs at 10 popular
beaches last month and in each of the past two summers. The
river remains open to swimming and other recreation.
Sonoma County officials posted caution signs at beaches up and
down the Russian River on Wednesday alerting visitors to
positive test results for a potentially dangerous, naturally
occurring neurotoxin linked to harmful algae, a problem
surfacing around Northern California this summer.
Monte Rio Beach on the lower Russian River was declared safe
for swimming and was reopened to the public Wednesday, just in
time for a heat wave that’s expected to send temperatures back
toward the century mark this weekend.
Sonoma County health officials have closed Monte Rio Beach on
the Russian River to swimming, wading and other activities that
would put visitors in direct contact with the water because of
elevated bacterial levels in the wake of an extremely busy
The Russian River surged to its highest level in a decade
Wednesday and deepened flooding woes, while across the North
Coast, crews in cities as well as rural areas scrambled to
re-open roads, clear toppled trees, restore power and bring
normalcy back to a region battered by four days of punishing
Flooding and mudslides triggered by weekend storms forced
evacuations Monday from threatened homes along the Russian
River, ahead of a second storm bearing down Tuesday on the
North Coast, bringing the potential for several more inches of
A massive concrete structure, built to withstand floods and
earthquakes beside the Russian River near Forestville, is the
latest step toward restoring the river’s beleaguered salmon and
Interested parties appear likely to get the extra time many
have requested to review and comment on some 3,600 pages of
study for a plan to permanently reduce summertime flows in the
Russian River and Dry Creek to benefit imperiled fish species.
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.
Wednesday’s trip from the foot of Lake Mendocino to a ranch
south of Ukiah marked the start of the “Headwaters to Ocean
Descent,” organized by LandPaths and Russian Riverkeeper and
led by Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore, with the first
three-day float this week and two more segments planned in
September and October.
The first of a pair of storms pounded Northern California on
Thursday, bringing heavy bands of rain to the North Bay,
causing minor flooding and mudslides, and raising the specter
that the flood-prone Russian River might spill its banks.
Northern California’s Russian River tends to be a pretty sedate
blur of sandy beaches and redwood groves, so when Joe Whitworth
and his team row a camera-studded green orb down a 60-mile
stretch one morning, they catch some long stares.
A newly developed plan designed to improve water quality in the
Russian River and address fecal bacterial contamination
throughout the watershed will have profound ramifications for
many North Coast residents, as state regulators target faulty
sewage systems and other means through which human and animal
waste may be entering waterways.
Thousands of landowners along Sonoma County’s four major coho
salmon spawning streams would be required to report their use
of water from both surface sources and wells under proposed new
state regulations intended to protect the highly endangered
From the State Water Resources Control Board: “The State Water
Resources Control Board has posted a proposed emergency
regulation to provide a minimum amount of water in four Russian
River tributaries to protect Central California Coast coho
salmon and steelhead.”
Sonoma County’s effort to implement one of its most
controversial land use policies — protective buffer zones along
3,200 miles of rivers and streams — has reignited a pitched
debate between environmental organizations, farmers and private
property rights activists about how to best protect and manage
waterways throughout the county.
A plan by PG&E to temporarily shut down a powerhouse that
feeds water from the Eel River to the Russian River may cut
into consumer supplies this winter by further reducing the
amount of water coming into Lake Mendocino.
The state Supreme Court on Wednesday allowed California
regulators to order farmers along the Russian River to reduce
cold-weather water sprays that have helped preserve their crops
while killing thousands of endangered salmon.
Construction crews that have spent more than two years
reconfiguring a mile-long stretch of Dry Creek outside
Healdsburg are about to mark completion of the critical first
leg of what, by 2020, is to be a six-mile project designed to
create new habitat for threatened and endangered fish.
This 25-minute documentary-style DVD, developed in partnership
with the California Department of Water Resources, provides an
excellent overview of climate change and how it is already
affecting California. The DVD also explains what scientists
anticipate in the future related to sea level rise and
precipitation/runoff changes and explores the efforts that are
underway to plan and adapt to climate.
A new look for our most popular product! And it’s the perfect
gift for the water wonk in your life.
Our 24×36 inch California Water Map is widely known for being the
definitive poster that shows the integral role water plays in the
state. On this updated version, it is easier to see California’s
natural waterways and man-made reservoirs and aqueducts
– including federally, state and locally funded
projects – the wild and scenic rivers system, and
natural lakes. The map features beautiful photos of
California’s natural environment, rivers, water projects,
wildlife, and urban and agricultural uses and the
text focuses on key issues: water supply, water use, water
projects, the Delta, wild and scenic rivers and the Colorado
Travel most anywhere in California and there is a river, creek or
stream nearby. Some are highly noticeable and are an integral
part of the community. Others are more obscure, with intermittent
flows or enclosed by boxed concrete flood channels that conceal
their true appearance. No matter the location, each area shares
some common themes: cooperation and conflict regarding water
allocations, greater water conservation, an awareness of
environmental stewardship, and plans that ensure long-term
This printed issue of Western Water examines the Russian and
Santa Ana rivers – areas with ongoing issues not dissimilar to
the rest of the state – managing supplies within a lingering
drought, improving water quality and revitalizing and restoring
the vestiges of the native past.