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Changes To Minimum Instream Flows to Russian River & Dry Creek: Public Hearings Set

News Release

Public Meeting to address “Biological Opinion” on Fisheries, Current Water Supply


Sonoma County Water Agency,

Ann DuBay, (707) 524-8378,

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, San Francisco District

Joe Barison, (415) 503-6802,


Three public meetings have been scheduled in Monte Rio (Nov. 4), Windsor (Nov. 8) and Ukiah (Nov., date to be scheduled) to discuss a 15-year plan, called a Biological Opinion, aimed at helping restore endangered coho salmon, Chinook salmon and steelhead in the Russian River and Dry Creek. The Biological Opinion, which was released by National Marine Fisheries Service on Friday, September 26, mandates sweeping changes to the way local and federal agencies operate Russian River water supply and flood control projects.

Deadline for submitting comments: 5 p.m., Nov. 15.

The Biological Opinion was issued by NMFS and received by the Sonoma County Water Agency, the United States Army Corps of Engineers (Corps), the California Department of Fish and Game and the Mendocino County Russian River Flood Control and Water Conservation Improvement District. The process leading up to the Biological Opinion – known as a “Section 7 consultation” – began in 1998 after the three fish species were listed on state and federal endangered species lists.

The Biological Opinion will be the topic of a meeting on Wednesday, October 1 of the Public Policy Facilitating Committee (PPFC) – a multiagency body that was created as a result of the Section 7 process. The meeting will take place from 4:30 – 6:00 p.m. at the Wells Fargo Center, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa.

“We began this long process to help save salmon and steelhead and to guarantee our current water supply,” said Water Agency Director Tim Smith, who also serves as chairman of the PPFC. “While the Biological Opinion is ultimately a federal mandate on local operations, we believe it will help us meet both these goals.”

“We believe the measures will allow us to continue ensuring public safety while enhancing the environment,” said Lt. Col. Laurence Farrell, who is commander of the San Francisco district. “The Corps is committed to meeting the conditions spelled out in the Biological Opinion.”

In issuing the Biological Opinion, NMFS found that some water supply and flood control activities jeopardize threatened fish. The Biological Opinion calls on the Water Agency and the Corps to eliminate or reduce these impacts through a set of measures called “reasonable and prudent alternatives,” including:

• Extensive monitoring of both habitat and fish in Dry Creek, the estuary and the river;

• Eliminating impediments to fish migration and improving habitat on several streams;

• Enhancing the existing coho recovery hatchery program at Warm Springs Dam.

• Restoring up to six miles of habitat in Dry Creek;

• Requesting the States Water Resources Control Board to reduce summertime flows in the river, beginning in 2010;

• Creating a freshwater lagoon in the estuary at the mouth of the Russian River during the summer months.

In winter, the Corps manages releases of water from Warm Springs Dam (at Lake Sonoma) into Dry Creek to reduce risk of flooding in the lower river near Guerneville and Monte Rio. In summer, the Water Agency releases water into the creek to meet water supply needs of 600,000 people.

Although the water released from the dam is cold and clean, the Biological Opinion finds that summertime flows are too high for the juvenile steelhead and salmon that live in the creek. Juvenile salmon and steelhead spend one to two years in freshwater before heading downstream to the ocean. Slowing the speed of the water in the stream will improve their growth and survival. Habitat restoration projects in Dry Creek specified in the Biological Opinion would create slow-moving pools during summer and quiet water areas where fish can escape high winter flows.

The Biological Opinion requires the Water Agency to ask the State Water Resources Control Board to lower minimum summertime flows in Dry Creek and the Russian River, beginning with a request for temporary changes in flow requirements in 2010. The reduction in flows require extensive environmental documentation and public input – a process that could take several years.

“In many ways the Russian River defines the region,” Smith said. “In addition to being critical for the fishery, it’s critical for recreation, for agriculture and it’s an incredible natural resource.

All these things will be taken into account in the environmental documentation that the water Agency will provide to the state water board.”

The Biological Opinion acknowledges a need for balance and flexibility by noting that “SCWA may find alternative minimum flow requirements that meet the goals of restoring functional salmonid rearing habitat . . .while promoting water conservation and limiting adverse effects on other in-stream resources.”

NMFS biologists believe that lower flows create a better environment for juvenile salmon and steelhead. Current minimum summer flows are based on weather conditions, and range from 125 cubic feet per second (during a normal year, as measured at Hacienda Bridge in Guerneville) to 85 cfs (dry year). Under the terms of the Biological Opinion, minimum flows would be dropped to 70 cfs (with an additional 15 cfs to maintain system flexibility for a total flow of 85 cfs) in both normal and dry years. In the upper Russian River, current flow requirements range from 185 cfs (between June 1 and August 31) to 150 cfs between September 1 and October 31. Under the terms of the Biological Opinion, minimum flows would be dropped to 125 cfs from June 1 through October 31.

In addition to the October 1st meeting, additional public meetings will be held in Sonoma and Mendocino counties in late October and early November to educate the community about the provisions of the Biological Opinion. Go to, for more information on meeting dates, times and locations.