Current Events

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

But before I wrote anything about the river, I also wanted to spend time with it, and Vilms' offer to show me its problems seemed fortuitous.

After she provides me with a proper river-touring uniform -- floppy adventurer's hat, slippery nylon running pants, a pair of nifty, never-used wet-suit booties -- we hoist two plastic kayaks from the top of her van. Vilms gives me the larger craft, even though it's the better of the two and the one she's used to.

"It's more stable," she says. "You'll like it better."

Joan Vilms.
Paul Trapani
Joan Vilms.

As I chop and wag upstream behind Vilms' smooth, powerful strokes, the river shoots through what is essentially a suburban and farmland mélange, but the snarl of bushes, trees, and vines along the bank makes it feel like we're miles from nowhere. Soon the water spreads out over a gravel bar; we get out, drag our kayaks, then paddle on, and, after half an hour, reach our first landmark, the Sonoma County Water Agency's inflatable bladder dam, 10 miles northwest of Santa Rosa, upstream from Guerneville, the focus of a battle between the Sonoma County government, which wants to extract more water from the river to serve growth, and environmental agencies that protect fish.

Made of black rubber and about the size of a 16-wheel tractor trailer, the dam looks like a symmetrical whale. Water spills over the top in a two-inch-thick curtain the width of the river. Behind it, the water's backed up into a small lake. The dam is used in the summer to raise the level of the Russian River and force water into perforated collector tubes that are buried upstream, along the banks of the river. By sucking water underground, through several feet of riverbed mud and gravel, the Water Agency is able to cheaply filter Russian River water for household use.

Development is exploding in Sonoma County, and the Sonoma County Water Agency rightly predicts it will not slow soon. So the agency has proposed to increase the amount of water it draws from the river each year by one-third, to the general wrath of environmentalists. (Earlier this year, for example, the legendary environmentalist David Brower resigned from the Sierra Club board of directors to protest what he believed was his colleagues' insufficient resistance to plans to draw more water from the Russian River.)

But the wrath of environmentalists and the pure power of the Endangered Species Act are entirely different things. Environmentalists speak loudly. The Endangered Species Act carries a huge stick.

To keep from taking a stick to the forehead, Sonoma County has had to show that its rubber dam doesn't harm steelhead trout. This year, for example, the county had to obtain a permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service to erect the decade-old dam, and the permit seemed important enough for the Water Agency's director to conduct the equivalent of a bureaucratic blitzkrieg, with agency officials calling and sending shrill memos to members of the California congressional delegation. "If we cannot raise the rubber dam in the middle of the Russian River, our ability to satisfy the current water demands of this region will be reduced to a point that the public health and safety within our region will be affected," the Water Agency's chief wrote in a memo sent to U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, as well as other politicians.

The agency got its permit, and the tone set by its lobbying campaign, in which enforcers of federal environmental laws were portrayed as being more sensitive to the needs of fish than those of human beings, may be used in Endangered Species Act battles to come, local political observers say. But the battle of the bladder dam is over, at least for this year.

Vilms and I portage our kayaks around the dam, then ease them into the smooth, still water on the other side, propelling ourselves toward the towering suction devices that draw Sonoma County's drinking water from the river. I'd kayaked only twice before, and not for a long time, so I'd forgotten how stealthy and silky it feels to rhythmically dip your left paddle edge, then your right paddle edge, then glide. I find myself drifting toward a log at the side of the river, where a tortoise and a duck are resting near each other. As I near, the duck looks at me. Vilms' voice pierces the air .

"Paddle away! Paddle away! Paddle away! Don't startle them," she hisses.

I do the best I can, but the damage is done. The duck slips off the log, and swims away.

"I'm sorry, but one of my absolute rules is to enter and leave the wilderness without disturbing its inhabitants," Vilms says in a tone that cannot be described as apologetic.

We round a bend and hear a dull hum, the sound of the suction towers. From above ground, the towers resemble miniature air traffic control towers, but their business is mostly subterranean; they suck water through acres of sand and muck at the bottom of the river and into perforated pipes, a process that mimics nature's method for filtering water, and avoids having to run the water through a traditional cleansing plant.

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