Thursday, July 25, 2024

If the Russian River Goes Dry, Affluent Marin County Has as Much at Stake as Mendo—Op-Ed

This shows the angled face of Scott Dam. The angle was added because of a landslide during construction. Photo credit: Kyle Schwartz/CalTrout. Permission to use from CalTrout.

Originally, I wrote ‘A Tale of Two Rivers in Mendocino County: Where the Eel and Russian Rivers Meet’ as the beginning of what would be a series of articles that took the time to focus on the different regions, communities, that depend on the Russian River, and by extension, transfers of water from the Eel River. The purpose of which is to examine and educate. To that end, and considering the current turn of events, I am continuing with the originally intended series of articles.

PG&E has decided to withdraw the proposal that was submitted by the Inland Water and Power Commission (IWPMC), Sonoma Water, and Round Valley Indian Tribes (RVIT) to include the building of new infrastructure to continue some level of water transfer from the Eel River to the Russian River after removal of Scott and Cape Horn Dams as a part of their decommissioning plan being submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

What does this mean for the communities dependent on the Russian River? For now, we have more questions than answers as to what this means for the plans and progress of the newly formed Eel-Russian Project Authority, the newly formed JPA consisting of representatives from IWPC, Sonoma Water, Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, and RVIT. It calls into question the feasibility of installing new infrastructure to continue to divert water from the Eel River to the Russian River and if we can, what that new regulatory pathway will be.

If the ability to divert water from the Eel River to the Russian River ceases completely, it could have severe consequences for the 650,000 people who depend on the Russian River including Marin County. Let’s look at Marin Municipal Water District (Marin Water), which is in the Mt. Tamalpais watershed and serves 191,000 people including residents of San Rafael, Tiburon, and Sausalito.

Marin County Civil Grand Jury just came out with a report in June 2023 calling into question Marin Water’s ability to meet the goals in their Water Resources Plan 2040. The grand jury goes on to advise Marin Water to increase water resiliency through conservation, upgrading meters to quickly detect waste/leaks, expanding and increasing water recycling capacity, expanding system capacity to transfer water, and increasing available supplies by 10,000 AF per year. Marin Water purchases up to 10,000 AF of water annually from Sonoma Water which accounts for 25% of their water supply.

If Sonoma loses the ability to supply Marin with water from the Russian River, very costly projects would need to be undertaken by Marin Water to supply its customers. The cheapest project to increase supply is to build a pipeline via the Richmond bridge to purchase and import water from the Sacramento River via East Bay Municipal Utility District (East Bay MUD) with a price tag of $111 million for the infrastructure. The cost to deliver the water to Marin Water would be $2500/AF. Currently, Marin Water is charging $2,000/AF to low-tier users. The other options looked at in the grand jury report include desalination plants, increases to water treatment and delivery capacity.

Without water from Sonoma Water, MMWD would likely need to undertake most, if not all, the proposed projects to secure their water supply. This could cost upwards of $500 million in capital outlay. Marin Water carries $139 million in outstanding bond debt and could increase that by $150 million if it substantially increased rates. This still would not be enough to afford all these projects.

In March of 2023, Marin Water put forward a rate study and increased rates. Using a customer rate calculator they have available online, a family of 4 using 55 gallons per person per day was paying $85 per month until July 2023 when rate hikes pushed their bill to $115 per month. This summer, that will rise to $130, summer 2025 to $145 and summer 2026 to $150. This is to rebuild reserves, account for inflation, and increase their capital improvement/maintenance budget. This does not take into account funding any projects to increase water supply. In 2023, Marin County Civil Grand Jury found Marin Water’s follow through on their hazard mitigation plan adopted in 2022 to address safety issues to protect water infrastructure to be inadequate partially due to slow progress on identified necessary infrastructure improvement projects.

These are just the financial effects on one water district in one county that depends on Russian River water, Marin County, which uses up to 10,000 AF a year. Losing the option entirely for water transfers means losing 50,000-60,000 AF a year. The remaining 40,000-50,000 less acre-feet would come from Mendocino and Sonoma County water supplies. I have not even mentioned the effect on those countys. That will be for another day, another article.

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  1. I guess what I was wanting to point out since the article was about Marin Water situation is that Eel River water via the Russian River is not the only water that SCWA has to sell to Marin. There is no mention of water stored in Lake Sonoma.

    • True. For brevity’s sake, I try not to overwhelm people with too much information at once.

      Lake Sonoma’s water levels set new low record 2020 and 2021 due to drought. PVP diversions were cut to 40,000 AF for the year as well.

      They are all interconnected not just physically, but by time. The affects of lower, or no, diversion rates become accumulative over time. Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma go lower and don’t fill. In multi-year droughts we see a net decline in storage. So part of the solution is better long term management and conservation measures regardless of what happens with the diversion but even with better management, a total loss of diversions from the Eel means someone would be drastically curtailed.

  2. Adam
    It seems like you are trying to scare the MCWD into helping fund the Potter Valley diversion.
    It sounds like they have other water options and they should pursue them immediately.
    Many years lake mendocino would be so low the boat ramps would get closed but Lake Sonoma was full enough to have boating all year.
    I agree they could use more water from lake Sonoma.
    Do you have historical lake level information for both lakes?

    • I’m not trying to scare anyone. I am hiping to educate the general public on the situation.

      MMWD can’t afford to kick in money. They have raised rates and put off trying to fund the $111 million pipeline from East Bay MUD. I have heard they are waiting until 2026 after the last scheduled rate hike to float a property tax funded bond measure.

      Here is historic lake levels for Lake Mendocino, Lake Sonoma and Lake Pillsbury.


        • Lake Mendocino was so low RVCWD’s intakes were out of the water. It was unknown how close it was to empty enough that the valve could fail. If we had a fall like the one before we would have been in the negative acre feet of water which is impossible.

          Those are recent years and Lake Sonoma hit historic lows. The drought was only 2 years. What happens when we hit 3-5? Or even longer?

    • Relying more on Lake Sonoma is not so simple. Releases from.Lake Sonoma have become limited due to their flowing down Dry Creek to the Russian River. Some years ago CFW cons were considerably limited the rate of those flows for the sake of fish habitat in that creek. Sonoma Water has since been spending a lot to make Dry Crerk a happier home for the fish but that can only do so much.

  3. All our water problems are solved with new storage up summers lane in fort bragg…. According to 4th district candidate gg.

  4. Without Lake Pillsbury and its water diverted to the Russian River Lake Mendocino will go dry almost every year. The watershed for Lake Mendocino alone is too small and the lake was built relying on the current diversion from the Eel river. Lake Mendocino has a 7 month yield (Lake Sonoma is 3 years). Wake up folks if we remove Lake Pillsbury but supposedly continue diversions it will only be possible to do so in the winter/wet months and that is NOT when there will be a need for it. The upper Russian River (north of dry creek) will dry up to a trickle every summer. Sadly there has been a lot of growth and development dependent upon the upper Russian River constant year round flows that have been artificially propped up by a completely different water project known as Lake Pillsbury and the diversion. CONNECT the dots.

  5. Thank you for that article, Adam Gaska! I know you are trying to educate people about the consequence of losing Lake Pillsbury and Scott Dam that impounds it. It is unfortunate that Congressman Jared Huffman and others want to drain Lake Pillsbury so the fish can swim upstream, but he is not thinking of the long-term loss of water to all points south. Scott Dam should be improved, and the local water consortiums should be supported to continue the quest to divert water through the Potter Valley project to send water to points south. Thanks!

  6. Billions for a maybe salmon will return but without Lake Pillsbury water temps get too high. Big win for tribes eager to restart commercial river fisheries but bad news for the avg California tax payer thanks Gavin got 2 buy you a plate from the French Laundry.

  7. Ukiah sits smack dab in the middle of one of, if not the biggest water basin in California. We are surrounded by springs. Such as Orr, Vichy, Sulfur and Bartlett to name but a few. Heck when the railroad was laid they had to import rock to raise the tracks out of the water. Where did all the excess water go?
    To waste! Serving mainly large farms. Such as Pears, Grapes, & yes even Marijuana. Or to resorts for the upper class to soak their weary bones like Orr and Vichy springs. None of which are of any use to sustain life itself. Only benefitting those who pockets are already deep enough to bury the rest of us.
    Personally I think the diversion of the Eel to the Russian should have never happened in the first place. People have tampered with mother earth, and her gifts of life for far to long. The arrogance and ignorance humans display trying to control her, for their own convenience or benefit needs to be rectified.
    55 gal per person per day is excessive. Now is the time for change. Vs. Changing the times for now!


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