Final Estuary Management Project Environmental Review Certified and Project Approved
On August 16, the Sonoma County Water Agency Board of Directors (Board) certified an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and approved a project to change the way the Russian River estuary is managed between May 15 and October 15.
The purpose of the project – which includes a new way of managing the sandbar that sometimes closes the mouth of the Russian River, where it flows into the Pacific Ocean near Jenner – is to improve habitat conditions for young salmon species, particularly steelhead, while minimizing flood risk. The changes in estuary management are required by the National Marine Fisheries Service’s (NMFS) Russian River Biological Opinion.
“Closed lagoons at river mouths are a critically important habitat for juvenile steelhead in many coastal California watersheds,” said NMFS biologist Dr. William Hearn. “The Russian River once had one of the largest steelhead runs in California; its populations are now threatened with extinction.”
The Final EIR assesses the potential environmental effects of implementing the Project, identifies the means to eliminate or reduce some of the potential significant adverse impacts of the Project, and evaluates a reasonable range of alternatives to the Project. In certifying the Final EIR, the Board found that it meets the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act and provides the public with full and fair disclosure of potential environmental impacts associated with the project.
“The EIR does a good job of analyzing the impacts on the estuary and the Project accomplishes the dual goals of improving habitat for steelhead and minimizing flood risk to the properties in the Jenner area,” said Sonoma County Water Agency General Manager Grant Davis.
Since the mid-1990s, the Water Agency has artificially breached the sandbar when it closes and rising water levels in the estuary threaten low-lying properties. When the sandbar is breached, salt water from the ocean mingles with fresh river water, creating saline conditions. In the 2008 Biological Opinion, NMFS biologists found that managing the estuary to reduce tidal inflow would create a fresh water lagoon that would help threatened salmon during the summer months. In order to reduce the risk of flooding while maintaining this fresh water lagoon, the Water Agency developed a plan for creating a channel over the sandbar that will allow river water to flow over the top, but keep ocean water from entering the lagoon.
The Final EIR identified several possible environmental impacts of the Project, many which were insignificant or which steps could be taken to mitigate the impacts. While other impacts are significant and can’t be mitigated, the Water Agency must change its estuary management practices in order to comply with the conditions contained in the Russian River Biological Opinion. Such compliance will allow the Water Agency to continue to supply water and provide flood control protection to residents within its service area, and will help ensure the continued survival of threatened and endangered salmon species in the Russian River watershed.