Current Events

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

These towers play a key role in a possible scenario in which the Russian River runs dry during the summer months, an occasion that would have the same drama as a Sonoma County tsunami. The summer flows of the Russian River have, over the years, spawned a tourism economy that includes hotels, canoe rental companies, restaurants, and the host of businesses attending to them.

In January, environmentalists filed a lawsuit alleging that a 92-year-old hydroelectric project that diverts water from Mendocino County's Eel River and into the Russian River during the summer has illegally decimated steelhead and salmon populations. Closing the Potter Valley Project, owned by the Pacific Gas & Electric Co., would radically alter the Russian River and the lives of tens of thousands of people. Built in 1908 and consisting of two dams and a mile-long tunnel, the project provides extremely cheap water to the Sonoma County Water Agency, which sells it for less than $3 an acre-foot, or around one-hundredth the price paid for water from the Colorado River.

Thanks to the tunnel we can kayak, rather than walk, on the Russian River in July. But the Potter Valley tunnel has over the years diverted so much water from the Eel River that the coho salmon and steelhead trout populations there have been nearly eliminated. The lawsuit, supported by commercial fishermen and Indian tribes, says the diversion must be stopped. Using the Russian River as an artificial summertime pipeline for Eel River water has created a bastardized ecological balance that, environmentalists say, is bad for fish and bad for the river.

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.

In an ironic twist, then, it is possible, if by no means certain, that growing development pressures may contribute to a scenario in which Eel River water is no longer diverted to the Russian River during the summer, and the Russian River therefore goes dry, as it did be- fore the Potter Valley Project was built. The development that environmen- talists often consider their greatest enemy could, then, grant them their fondest wish.

During the next two years, federal and state officials will require the Sonoma County Water Agency to re-examine the way it filters water drawn from the Russian River. New federal laws require that Sonoma County provide scientific proof that its river-bottom system removes a microbe called cryptosporidium. The microbe, which causes watery diarrhea, headache, abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, and low-grade fever lasting around two weeks, can be deadly for people with weak immune systems. Already, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has refused to certify Caspar, Wyo., one of the few municipalities to use a system like the one on the Russian River, as adequately removing cryptosporidium.

If research fails to prove that the system can remove "crypto," the Sonoma County Water Agency will need to consider options that could include running water directly from Mendocino County through a pipe, rather than through the bed of the Russian River. This could change Russian River water flows dramatically, returning them to levels not seen since the early 1900s, when the river usually ran dry in the summer.

Were this drastic change to occur, of course, rafting companies, bed-and-breakfast owners, and all the many other merchants dependent on the summer tourists who come to the river would be outraged. But the fact is that politically, Sonoma County is the Vermont of California. Here, environmentalists hold more clout than business owners do. This is not a belief; it is a fact borne out over numerous Russian River environmental battles. In political terms, the only thing that keeps the Russian River rolling in the summertime is the fact that that's the cheapest, most efficient way for the Water Agency to obtain water.

If cryptosporidium were to change the economics of Sonoma County water delivery, it could change everything to do with the river, including the huge water suction devices planted in an eddy a few yards off the river's bank, about 100 feet ahead of us. The agency's pumping towers stand steadfast as we pass them, droning unperturbed like hangar-sized refrigerators. "It's kind of nice that they're on a bend," Vilms says, noting the towers' odd unobtrusiveness, given their wilderness setting. "You don't really hear them until you're really close."

We paddle on, the drone fades, and Vilms notices a clump of scarlet monkey flowers, dime-sized and bright as rubies.

Although possible tectonic policy shifts could affect the river's ecology, the pressures most visible from the river are the banal, seemingly insignificant ones. As Sonoma County land and resources become more precious, it seems everybody wants a piece of the river.

Vilms points left toward the riverbank -- which has up to now been a verdant tangle of trees, vines, bushes, and tall grass -- to a stretch 200 yards long that looks as if someone had spent a few weeks using a backhoe to look for a lost contact lens. "You see those grapevines that go almost up to the side of the bank? They cause those washouts," says Vilms.

Sure enough, the riverbank is decimated, and its appearance gives every indication that it will erode even further now that the old riparian matrix of tree roots and ground cover is gone. Premium prices paid for Sonoma County grapes have led farmers to scrape away apple orchards, oaks, and redwoods; bulldoze hills and fill valleys; construct elaborate drainage and erosion-control structures; sink ever-deeper wells; and lay down the acres of plastic sheets marking the application of methyl bromide, a soil fumigant used to control pests and weeds.

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