A long history of Russian River droughts

By Rollie Atkinson, SoCoNews Staff, SoCoNews, August 22, 2021

Dave Fanucchi overlooks the river in Alexander Valley. Fanucchi and his family have been farming in the area since 1948. (Photo Sarah Bradbury)

Human-made influences have both hindered and helped summer flows

The Russian River has been dwindling to a trickle for many summers and raging with overflowing winter floods well before weather records or written history was recorded. The river’s 110-mile long meandering course through fertile valleys, gravelly bottomlands, redwood canyons and a briny estuary has been etched by a timeless cycle of floods, droughts and other powers of nature.

But, since the last century, the river no longer makes its own history. Now, humans control the river by building dams and levees, mining gravel, tampering with seasonal flows and pumping billions of gallons of water for farms, vineyards, cities, industry, private wells and for commercial water users well beyond the river’s watershed and as far away as Marin County. Only the seasonal rainfall has remained out of man’s touch, although that is part of ongoing climate change debates and research.

Today’s Russian River is often described as a “system” and comes with mammoth-sized plumbing parts like valves, meters, aqueducts, turbine pumps, inflatable dams, reservoirs, tanks, booster stations, fish ladders and enough written laws, ordinances, regulations and court decisions to possibly fill the original river bed from Ukiah to Jenner with printed paper.

It’s likely that the historical drought we are experiencing this year would be happening without any manmade help or interference. California is a place of extreme weather patterns, and droughts are part of the cycle, coming once or twice almost every decade. The drought of 2021 is now replacing northern California’s drought of 1977 as the worst. All the biggest questions today are about how much rain we might get in 2022 and whether our collective conservation efforts will be enough to avoid the worst cases of economic failures, building moratoriums and severe water rationing a year from now or longer.

Old-timers and historians tell of when the Russian River would go completely dry in many summers. Native salmon survived by hiding in small pools in the river’s main tributaries (Big Sulphur, Mayacama, Dry Creek, Mark West and Green Valley.) Alexander Valley ranchers didn’t need a bridge to drive to town; they crossed the dry riverbed almost wherever they wanted.

Then, in 1920, the Scott Dam was completed on the Eel River in the highlands of Mendocino County. Eel River water was pumped through a mile-long tunnel and diverted into the East Fork of the Russian River. In 1959, the Army Corps of Engineers completed the Coyote Dam and formed Lake Mendocino with a capacity of 118,000 acre feet of water. This week’s lake total is 23,000 acre feet, a historic low for this time of season.

With the construction of those two dams, the cities of Cloverdale and Healdsburg and the ranchers of Alexander Valley gained reliable water supplies, plus some valuable flood management. Crop plantings and farming practices were influenced by the calibrated water discharge. Hops and prunes were replaced by winegrapes. Indiscriminate overhead watering of decades ago has been replaced by more precise drip irrigation systems and other sustainable farming practices.

But, just as a historical flood can wash away acres of vineyard land or topsoil, a historical drought also can defeat the plumbing prowess of dams and pumps.

“This year is different,” said Al Cadd, 95, a rancher and river watcher who’s lived most of his life on the same ranch in the middle of Alexander Valley. “In 1977, we had enough water in Lake Mendocino, but that’s not the case this time. We haven’t done a thing in 50 years to meet the population growth and new development (but) in the past nobody complained.”

Sonoma County’s population in 1977 was about 270,000. Today the population is 488,000 and Sonoma Water has 600,000 residential and commercial water customers, all drawing water from the river and its aquifers. Upper Russian River water users, 1,500 in all, were placed on a water diversion curtailment plan Aug. 3 and 307 more water rights holders were added to the “do not pump” list on Aug. 11.

Cadd has been one of the keenest observers of the river’s seasonal cycles and its powers. Besides ranching on the banks of the river, Cadd was a chief supervisor for the Sonoma County Flood Control and Water Conservation District, the future Sonoma County Water Agency, now called Sonoma Water. From the early 1960s to 1979 he battled floods, saved farming lands, monitored gravel extractions and fished whenever he wasn’t working or helping his wife Alyce with the home ranch. Cadd wrote a book in 2018, “Rambling On,” that’s as much about the river as it about him.

“I’m not really picking choices,” said Cadd in a recent interview, “but I’d rather have a drought any day instead of a flood.” Maybe that’s because his family lost nine acres of prune orchards and fertile soils during a flood in 1963. “Later that spring we went down to Jenner and found some of our plum trees trying to sprout.”

“The river and the weather have lots of extremes,” Fanucchi said. “That’s why you’ve got to have dams. Dams are good and bad but it’s a cockamamie idea to talk about tearing down dams right now.”

There has been decades of multi-party talks about dismantling the Scott Dam and eliminating the diversion of Eel River water into the upper Russian River basin. Environmental proponents want to save endangered salmonoids and their habitat. Potter Valley and Alexander Valley farmers want to keep the water flowing and the cities of Cloverdale and Healdsburg are thirsty bystanders as well. Pacific Gas and Electric’s contract to operate a small hydropower plant at Scott Dam expires in 2022, forcing a deadline for the fate of the Eel River water diversion into the Russian River. The current drought is forcing some of the project’s participants to rethink past decisions to remove the dam.

Lou Preston is another old-timer who grew up on his family’s dairy farm on the middle reach of the river, below Healdsburg before buying his own ranch and vineyards in 1972 in upper Dry Creek Valley.

“My dad always told to protect your water rights,” said Preston, who started harvesting his grapes last week, 10 days before most harvest starts.

Although Preston’s ranch straddles Peña Creek and he has riparian water rights, he received a letter this week from the state water control board to cease all irrigation pumping.

“I thought I had the rights to this water so now I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said. All properties in Dry Creek Valley that pump or divert Dry Creek water are considered “lower river” users because they are benefitting from Lake Sonoma stored water. “I guess we are testing some myths here, but my water-deficit grapes are great this year. I just picked some beautiful sauvignon blanc.”

“But it (the drought) will definitely have an impact this year. I am seeing that at my neighbor’s booths at the farmers market,” Preston said.

Another river veteran is Rand Dericco, who supervised gravel and vineyard operations for 40 years for Syar Gravel and Syar Vineyards, “Before the dams, the main stem of the river almost always dried up each summer. The problem is we don’t have a source of slow melting snow (like the Sierras) to keep year-round flow happening.”

Dericco is now retired and living on the Rogue River in Oregon where he says there’s lots of water but it is too warm for the salmon this year.

“The real problem is the illegal diversions up there (Eel River) from pot growers and others,” said Fanucchi, who’s fished and camped on the upper Eel from the 1950s around Lake Pillsbury. “We used to watch the steelhead jump up the dam. If you want to save the steelhead and salmon, we need to get rid of the northern pike and rough jaw fish.”

With most of the bed of Lake Mendocino now dry, Fanucchi wonders why the Army Corps isn’t doing lots of dredging to increase the lake’s capacity. He also reminds whoever is listening that Coyote Valley Dam was originally engineered in 1959 to eventually be raised to increase Lake Mendocino’s capacity. In 2018, the dam raising plan was reviewed by a coalition of local agencies to raise the original 164-foot tall dam by 36 feet and add as much as 25 billion gallons new capacity. The estimated project cost three years ago was $5.8 million. A feasibility study had the backing of Congressman Jared Huffman. According the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s website the “feasibility study is not funded and is inactive.”

The historic drought of 1977 created angst in its wake, but it did not lead to any government-led action to reduce impacts from future droughts. Construction on the Warm Spring Dam and Lake Sonoma had already started in 1967. The project was halted for over a decade by several court cases and voter referendums before its completion in 1983, 38 years ago. No major water supply or delivery project has been built since. The drought of 2021 may have a different ending.

This article was produced by SoCoNews. See more news at soconews.org