A Tale of Two Rivers: The Russian and the Santa Ana
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 sustainability.
The issues affect the spectrum of water users and touch upon some difficult and controversial matters that are hard to resolve. Sometimes, the dispute winds up in court, but there is an increasing emphasis on finding solutions that are outside a judge’s ruling and more agreeable to everyone involved.
In two of the state’s river systems – the Russian in the north and the Santa Ana in the south – scores of people individually and collectively are dealing with issues of water supply, water quality and protecting the interests of the environment. The problems are not new but have grown to a level of complexity that would be unrecognizable to previous generations. The Russian and the Santa Ana are far apart geographically but they share many of the themes common to all the state’s rivers.
One of those themes involves finding balance and reconciling the differences between water users along the river mainstem, the tributaries and the underlying aquifers. That process can be difficult and lengthy as issues of water appropriations and the responsibility for maintaining water quality are sorted out – in the Santa Ana River’s case it led to one of the largest cases of civil litigation anywhere but also to an accord by which management would proceed under a cooperative aegis.
“It’s the best managed river in California,” said Bill Dendy, who from 1969 to 1972 served as the inaugural general manager of what was then called the Santa Ana Watershed Planning Agency (the name changed to Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority [SAWPA] in 1972). “They’ve integrated management of groundwater storage and water quality into a single coordinated function that enables multiple reuses of water. And they’ve developed excellent working relationships among water management agencies as well as between those agencies and the regional water quality control board.”
By 1972 SAWPA had published its first watershed management plan, which included a comprehensive analysis of each groundwater basin and the interaction of basins with each other and with the river, Dendy said. The document projected future water demands, identified existing and potential water shortages and water quality degradation, and proposed a set of projects to resolve them. Included were projects to pump brackish groundwater to prevent it from flowing into the river, desalt it to produce potable water and discharge the extracted salts to “brine lines” for ocean disposal.
Along the North Coast, the Russian River faces an array of challenges that government and non-government groups are tackling with the aim of providing a river system that balances many competing demands. In an area that was once legacy to massive numbers of salmon and steelhead, restoring the fishery is an overriding matter and has been the basis for much consultation. At the same time, water providers must accommodate municipal needs as well as those of grape growers in one of the world’s most prized wine-producing regions.
“The conflicts between fish and people and between agriculture and cities in the Russian River system are acute,” said Peter Kiel, a water rights attorney with Ellison, Schneider and Harris. “But we cannot explain it simply as a matter of water scarcity.”
The struggles within the river system for water allocations while protecting and restoring endangered fish have prompted comparisons to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. “Schematically, it’s like a mini Delta,” said Victoria Whitney, chief of the division of water rights for the State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board). “Users of both systems rely, in part, on imported water, and both watersheds are used, in part, for export to other areas. Both river systems are regulated by upstream reservoirs, and in both cases, there are downstream flow objectives that are met through releases from those reservoirs.”
Grant Davis, assistant general manager of the Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA), said while the Russian is a “microcosm and represents many of the same challenges,” it is not as complex as the Delta, which he called an “almost intractable situation.” He is optimistic all involved “can make some significant progress toward restoring the fisheries in the Russian River watershed.”
River stewardship involves the participation of interdisciplinary sciences, water users and agencies responsible for providing water and, in some cases, recycling treated wastewater for further use. Factor in the growing need for increasingly scarce water supplies and the true picture of the quandary appears.
Of course, it’s all part of the bargain Californians have struck with the landscape they have inhabited from the very beginning. In a state with enormous drainage basins and vast groundwater aquifers, community development has proceeded with the knowledge that because of the semi- infinite and are not to be taken lightly. Parenthetically, the destructive power of floodwaters has been recognized (often with great distress) and accounted for in engineered solutions.
The Santa Ana and Russian rivers are a study in contrasts. The former, which is the largest watershed drainage south of the Sierras, exists largely in a highly urbanized, highly regulated setting but maintains some traces of its native past. The latter is in a more rural setting, winding through a bucolic backdrop of open space but still faced with the challenges of flood management, growth and fisheries restoration.
Both areas have seen lawsuits and cooperation as issues of water rights and water quality have risen to the forefront. Water projects in California have been a point of ambitious undertakings and contentious arguments as seen in the bold undertakings of the Los Angeles water barons at the turn of the century, the breadth of the State Water Project and the court battles that continue today. The water picture in the state is as tense as ever, with the ongoing drought, Delta pumping restrictions, climate change and questions about future management among the hot button issues.
The new reality has created a more aggressive focus on efficient water use. Throughout the state, users are being asked to use less. In some cases, mandatory restrictions and higher rates have been imposed to drive the message home. In the Russian, Santa Ana and other watersheds, the impacts of a third consecutive dry year are having significant consequences and stakeholders are gearing for the challenge.
SAWPA in 2007 launched its One Water, One Watershed initiative with the intent of bringing together all those tied to water “in a way that goes beyond the interest of any one agency.” The initiative picks up on the cooperative spirit that has marked the tone of the region and seeks to redefine water management.
“Clearly we are operating more sustainably than most places – we are very efficient,” said Celeste Cantú, executive director of SAWPA. “There are still synergies to be found. If we are able to step back and forget our boundaries, we can do what we do differently and solve more problems. Not every problem needs a big chunk of money and infrastructure.”
This 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.
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The two rivers profiled in this Western Water can be seen as a microcosm of water issues in California. Although California’s Russian and Santa Ana rivers are a study in contrasts, a theme runs through them. That theme is conflict but with some major points of cooperation by stakeholders. The debates sometimes run like wild rapids but there are pools of calm where stakeholders agree to look for ways to work together. The Foundation’s Gary Pitzer analyzed both rivers and gives us the latest on each. We learn that the tale of these two rivers could also be the tale of how many people in areas as diverse as the Salton Sea to the Klamath River sometimes work out painful compromises step by step.
In its natural state, the Santa Ana River would not flow during the dry Southern California summers. So in summer, the flows are primarily channelized effluent discharges. In spite of these facts that make it “unrecognizable as a river” according to environmentalists, the Santa Ana River has become what some call the best managed river in California. Groundwater storage and water quality are integrated into a single coordinated function to manage multiple reuses of water. It all started in 1972 after the river had been part of one of the largest cases of civil litigation anywhere. Exhausted parties finally agreed to work together and the Santa Ana River became the scene of the state’s first major watershed management plan.
The Russian River shares very few characteristics with the Santa Ana River. It is a river maintaining many natural characteristics in a somewhat rural environment. The river runs through premier wine country. But years of development, overfishing, gravel mining pollution and low water levels have hurt the ecosystem. Fights over uses of the Russian River have led many observers to compare it to a mini California Delta because the issues pit the protection of endangered fish – crashing salmon and steelhead – against the allocation of water for stressed municipal and agricultural water uses. Like the Delta, the tributaries feeding the Russian River system are controlled by upstream reservoirs and deal with regulated downstream water flows.
River stewardship also is a link between rivers. And it involves the participation of interdisciplinary sciences. An accurate accounting of water used by diverters is part of the equation. Efficient water use and conservation are also part of “finding” more water. It’s all necessary work because, since from the very beginning of their history, Californians have struck a bargain with the landscape they have inhabited as water here is finite. And both of these rivers have faced years when there are destructive floods and years of drought.
The hard facts are that there is not enough available water for all the beneficial uses of water in both these areas of the state. The challenge is to make agreements to give each use as much water as possible. Some of that work is being done on these two rivers. You can have the opportunity to see one of these interesting rivers firsthand by attending our August 6-7 Russian River Tour. Read more about the tour on page 14.
In the News
Ducheny Bill Aims to Spark Salton Sea Restoration
Proponents are hoping a bill making its way through California’s Capitol will kick-start restoration efforts at the troubled Salton Sea.
SB 51 by Sen. Denise Ducheny, D-San Diego, would establish the Salton Sea Restoration Council to direct the long-term effort of restoring the health of the state’s largest lake. Located in the southeastern corner of California, the salty Salton Sea is primarily supplied by agricultural runoff. As the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) continues to conserve water to transfer to San Diego, the sea will receive less water and begin to shrink – further concentrating the salinity of its remaining water. The state Natural Resources Agency has recommended an $8.9 billion plan to restore the Sea.
SB 51 passed the Senate Environmental Quality Committee April 27 on a unanimous vote. Restoration proponents are concerned that a smaller and saltier sea will have a detrimental impact on the birds that now use the sea – a vital stop along the Pacific Flyway.
“Time is of the essence for Salton Sea restoration,” states a March 19 letter to Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, by representatives of several environmental organizations. “Six years has passed since the [Quantification Settlement Agreement] was signed and nearly two years have passed since the California Resources Agency produced a programmatic plan to restore the Sea. Yet, very little has actually been done to address the declining conditions at the Sea.”
Six years ago, the Salton Sea Restoration Act required the “maximum feasible attainment” of a long-term, stable aquatic and shoreline habitat for the historic sea levels and diversity of fish and wildlife that depend on the Salton Sea, elimination of air quality impacts and protection of water quality, according to a 2008 report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office. After considering several alternative restoration plans, the California Natural Resources Agency recommended an $8.9 billion, 75-year plan to restore the Sea. Legislation to implement the restoration stalled in the Assembly last year.
The council won’t have the authority to make local land use decisions and will be amended to clarify that it won’t have regulatory power over air and water issues.
Meanwhile, a proposed transfer of water from agricultural to urban use is being scrutinized for any possible consequences to the environment. Under the arrangement, part of the Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA), IID would sell water obligated to Salton Sea inflows to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD). In exchange, MWD would pledge $166 million for restoration projects. Delivery of water to MWD would occur in stages, increasing to 700,000 acre-feet – enough for the annual needs of 1.3 million homes.
Representatives of IID, MWD and the Pacific Institute say the transfer offers “multiple benefits,” including proving a valuable water source for a strapped MWD, an additional $328 million in savings to the state from using habitat features for dust control and allowing Imperial County to reduce land fallowing. According to a jointly written statement, while the transfer “would accelerate the rate at which the Salton Sea shrinks in the near future … this accelerated decline would eventually slow such that by 2034 the projected elevations of the Sea, with or without the … transfer, would be practically identical.”
Local officials are enlisting the aid of Sen. Barbara Boxer to direct federal stimulus funds to Salton Sea restoration.
“It was clear to me after meeting with Senator Boxer, who owns a home in the desert, that she understands the importance of funding and maintaining our infrastructure,” said Palm Springs Mayor Steve Pougnet after a four-day Washington, D.C. visit in March. “She will be a strong advocate for Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley when it comes to our success in obtaining federal stimulus funds.”