Current Events

How development pressure and environmental law may force radical change along the seemingly idyllic but deeply troubled Russian River

DEPENDING ON HOW YOU APPROACH THE MATTER, Joan Vilms, the spry, fiftysomething champion of the Russian River, is the sort of person you like despite yourself, or else have a hard time getting along with, best intentions notwithstanding.

Vilms is a woman whose stature, grooming, and manner suggest seriousness of purpose. She has straight, pepper-gray hair, a compact frame that is neither stout nor slender, and a line of social attack that is neither particularly artful, nor entirely discourteous. "What happened?" she snaps, by way of introductory comment.

I'm late. I've kept her waiting at the Steelhead Beach parking lot half an hour beyond the planned meeting time for our afternoon kayaking expedition along the Russian River. She looks down at my leather, brass-buckled shoes, up my cotton bluejeans, and along my cotton flannel shirt in the disapproving manner of a mother scanning a child smeared with jelly. "Didn't you bring kayaking clothes?" she asks.

The Sonoma County Water Agency's rubber dam is inflated every year so pumps can move water to Santa Rosa and beyond.
Paul Trapani
The Sonoma County Water Agency's rubber dam is inflated every year so pumps can move water to Santa Rosa and beyond.

I hadn't brought them, even though I'd known we would spend three hours inspecting ecological details along a calmish stretch of the mid-Russian River. After listening to me mumble about my clothes, and hearing me haltingly admit I barely know how to operate a kayak, Vilms lets her voice fade to gentleness. "Well, I've got some nylon pants that will probably fit you. Would you like to borrow some neoprene booties? And a hat. You don't want to get sunburned, do you?"

As the oft-heard voice of Friends of the Russian River, a coalition of Sonoma County environmental groups, Vilms and her curmudgeon-with-a-heart-of-gold manner are the perfect companion to this troubled stream, which itself serves as a parable for urban Northern California's tortured relationship with its incomparable natural surroundings.


Though the Russian is not the kind of rapids-shooting river worshipped by rafting aficionados, this beautiful, meandering, once-great trout- and salmon-spawning ground is the site of more political turbulence than perhaps any similar-sized body of water in California.

There are fights over who will handle millions of dollars in federal funds to restore salmon and steelhead habitat.

There are battles between vintners and environmentalists over water use and care of the river's watershed and riparian areas.

Developers and environmentalists square off over planning laws.

Fishermen, environmentalists, tourism entrepreneurs, local politicians, and county bureaucrats feud over water diversion.

And if all sides in these complicated disputes take care to use language favoring the preservation of natural resources, vitriol often takes the day. "Human beings aren't my favorite species," muses Vilms, a frequent warrior in these clashes.

It almost had to come to this.

Since the era of John Muir, the dominant environmental belief system in America and, particularly, Northern California has held the view that the natural world is precious and should be preserved. Under that belief system, it's wrong to foul the environment or wipe out its species and ecosystems; over time, laws and bureaucracies, including the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Environmental Protection Agency, were created to prevent such depredation. But during the quarter-century since most of these changes went into effect, we really haven't had to give them much practical thought. We played with our kids in the back yard, drove to the hills on the weekends, and recycled; if we were particularly sensitive to the environment, we decorated with native plants and put solar cells on our roofs.

But now, in what may be a harbinger of environmental conflict coming to the rest of the state and nation, Sonoma County and other high-growth areas of California are finally colliding with the full force and high cost of what had, until recently, been distant environmen- tal laws.

This summer, in a first-of-its-kind dispute, Sonoma County water officials had to wage a fierce Washington lobbying battle with federal wildlife officials to raise the level of the Russian River so water could be pumped to nearby cities and towns. Elsewhere in the state the Endangered Species Act required the Central Valley Project, which sends Sacramento River water to southern counties, including Los Angeles, to cut back on water deliveries to help preserve Chinook salmon. Last month, a court delayed regulators' plan to further cut Sacramento River water deliveries to protect a fish called the Sacramento splittail.

During the coming months and years, measures created to preserve the environment will likely require more and more people to abandon the thought of owning houses and cars, and the possibility of realizing the California dream of a countrified city life. And those people might -- just might -- have to abandon their summertime getaways along the banks of the Russian River, because there's a possibility, as yet unexamined, that environmental law could require the river to go dry during the summer for the first time in a century.


Finding people who'll talk about the troubles of the Russian River is not difficult. A dozen Sonoma County advocacy groups are, in one way or another, concerned with the river. Many businesses depend on the river for survival. Farm groups and other water-using associations spend their days fretting about the Russian. Governments of all stripes seem to deliberate constantly about it. As I looked at the complicated nexus of law and policy surrounding the river, I talked to environmental activists, politicians, state, federal, and local water officials, a local builder, and ordinary Sonoma County residents.

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