Current Events

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

Vilms and other environmentalists negotiated for a year with vintners to draft a new vineyard development ordinance, which, among other things, prevents growers from planting dangerously close to the river. But the agreement arrived too late to halt vineyards such as the one that's ruined this portion of riverbank.

A couple of hundred yards upstream, workers have built a boulder wall along the riverbank to prevent the water from stealing even more earth. But Vilms says these sorts of stopgap measures do more harm than good in the long run. Because the water moves more swiftly along the smooth, rocky banks, it tends to wash the edge farther down with even more force, causing even greater erosion.

We continue toward another stone embankment a half-mile or so past the vineyard, and pull our kayaks onto the muddy shore. Vilms announces she's going to show me one of the half-dozen or so gravel mines that run like a string of pearls along the side of the Russian River between Santa Rosa and the ocean. They were dug several yards off the river's edge, so as to leave no immediately evident damage to the river, but Vilms says they're a menace just the same.

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.

We climb over an embankment of stones, installed to repair damage from a recent storm that blew out the side of the river, then walk a couple of dozen yards south to what appears to be a medium-sized lake. It's blue, placid, and grass rimmed -- rather beautiful, really.

The company that created this lovely pit has offered to donate it for possible use as a park. This is a sneaky gambit, environmentalists say. These abandoned gravel mines sit like a dormant cancer in the body of a living river such as the Russian. In the event of a ferocious storm, water becomes "hungry," seeking out chasms and gullies with enough volume to absorb its massive force. These huge pits would draw the river like a vacuum, causing it to actually jump from its old bed and create a new one, ripping through the countryside in a quest to link one gravel mine to the next. This hasn't happened yet. But it's possible that no amount of ugly rock walls will prevent such a calamity when the time comes.

As we sit on a boulder, looking at the blue water of the abandoned gravel mine, talk turns to the growing suburbs of Sonoma County.

"They'd just love to turn this into another Silicon Valley," she says.

The answer to the Russian River's problems is simple, as Vilms sees it. People just need to stop moving to Sonoma County.

We get back into our kayaks and push into the river. We're heading downstream now after a 90-minute trek upriver, and the going is easy. After gliding effortlessly for 10 minutes we steer our kayaks to a gravel bar. There, Vilms pulls out a waterproof bag, which contains a knapsack filled with food. She offers me a nectarine.

We are sitting on the rocky sandbar, eating quietly, when I realize I have to urinate. But peeing on Vilms' riverbank areas is about the last thing in the world I'd consider doing right now. Finishing my nectarine I hold the pit in my palm a moment, idly considering throwing it into the river, then quickly abandon the thought, and put it in my shirt pocket.

Even though it's inconvenient to wander about with a full bladder and a fruit pit in my pocket, I'm not littering in front of Joan Vilms.

It's inconvenient to honor Vilms' environmental sensibilities in a greater sense, too.

Sonoma County, the vineyard-and-redwood-carpeted paradise cleaved by the Russian River, has long served as the Bay Area's back-to-nature getaway. Bohemian Grove, the medieval-ritual wooded retreat for wealthy masters of the universe, is there. Canoeing, rafting, fishing, and camping companies by the score are there. And big-back-yard country homes -- beautiful places outlined by blackberry bushes, shaded by redwoods -- are tucked into every cranny that's not completely citified, designated wilderness, or carpeted by grape leaves.

The Russian River and the Sonoma Valley it carved are San Francisco's version of the Californian frontiersman dream. This is where the American idea of endless possibilities is expressed in the act of striking out for the territories when the notion arises.

But perhaps more than elsewhere in California, the Russian River lays bare the tattered movie-set architecture behind this frontier fantasy.

As water systems around the state are forced to confront the federal government's decision to define salmon, trout, and other fish as endangered species, sacrifices are going to have to be made. Already communities around Sonoma County have instituted urban-growth boundaries, an effort to halt resource-devouring urban sprawl. This fall Sonoma voters are expected to pass a referendum called the Rural Heritage Initiative, which would require any changes in the county's general plan to be put to a popular vote.

If similar measures elsewhere are any guide, housing will become more expensive, people will be forced to live closer together, to give up their cars, and their yards, and the option of installing private native-plant gardens. Sonoma County environmentalists, many of whom warmed to the cause only when they found new houses encroaching on their own homesteads, are going to have to accept a more urban, efficient way of life if they truly wish to preserve the environment. The day when people like Joan Vilms can strike out for Sebastopol, Sonoma County, to live a rural, natural way of life, will have to pass into history, if the Russian River is to survive.

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