Russian River Revitalization project is underway

By Camille Escovedo, Staff Writer, SoCoNews, August 31, 2021

russian river

A day at the river. (Photo by Rollie Atkinson)

River MAC members question if plan focuses too much on promoting tourism and too little on the impacts of tourism

A campaign to revive the Russian River watershed and restore the environmental, economic and recreational relationships that local communities have with its waters will launch this year.

The Russian River Revitalization project is one of the priorities of the Russian River Confluence, created in 2017 to unite the many organizations addressing the river’s deterioration in quality and quantity, said Elise Weiland, a field representative for the county’s fifth district, which includes the lower Russian River.

The confluence prioritizes strengthening protection and restoration of the watershed, communicating effectively across the watershed and building up the Confluence’s infrastructure and resources.

The Russian River Confluence’s marketing committee chose Catch Creative to promote the project, one of its overall priorities to strengthen protection and restoration of the watershed, communicate effectively across the watershed and build up infrastructure and resources, Weiland said.

Past clients of the “full-service design, creative and marketing agency” include Sonoma Land Trust, Becoming Independent and various wineries, according to Mandrier.

The campaign consists of three phases, Catch Creative design agency’s partner Ryan O’Halloran said. First, there’s research, discovery and planning, followed by identity design and campaign development and third, campaign expression and outreach.

O’Halloran and Catch Creative Partner Brandt Mandrier presented their plans for the Russian River Revitalization project to the Lower Russian River Municipal Advisory Council (MAC) on Aug. 19.

Stepping stones to river revitalization

O’Halloran said the first phase of research has involved striking up a ton of conversations, including talking to residents, business owners, tourists and others, sending almost 100 invitations for interviews, and rolling out street teams to learn what people like about the river and what issues the community finds important so they can guide the project more.

Overall, he said they’ve experienced a roughly 25% response rate, less than they had expected for the involved local community. Brandt called attention to the project’s website in English and Spanish, an interactive online survey and project and river information. O’Halloran added people can share their perspectives anonymously or openly and that the website provides email subscriptions and contact forms for project participants.

As for the identity design and campaign development phase, O’Halloran said, “That’s really the creative portion of the project. That’s where we take all the research, all the thinking, all the conversations we’ve had and put together the creative materials that this campaign calls for.”

Expression and outreach involves getting the word out on these efforts, to “elevate the perception of this region with whatever tools we have accessible to us,” he said. As the meeting transitioned to a project poll, Weiland described how the effort seeks to help people understand how the watershed works in its entirety.

Representatives question whether project prioritizes tourism too much

“The survey leads me to believe that it might have to do with tourism as well and just kind of our local economy, the health of the communities,” commented Tony Goodwin, the alternate council member for Representative Mike Nicholls of the Cazadero and Duncans Mills District.

Weiland responded, “One of the things we talked about was the beneficial uses of water and one of the most beneficial uses of water is making wine, and attracting tourists.”

She continued, “Those are important uses and one of the goals of the project is to have these different uses work sustainably together. So, if we create a great brand, a great iconic ‘Keep Tahoe Blue’ kind of brand that promotes the river as an eco-tourism spot throughout the country and the world, and then we have perhaps merchandise that will keep single-use plastics out of the river and help businesses promote themselves at the same time.”

Goodwin said he frequently thinks about how one finds “the happy medium” in a tourism-based economy, bringing forward his observation that families are leaving the area “to suit more tourism and Airbnbs and stuff like that.” He asked, “Is this something that will possibly be looked into in this survey?”

Guerneville District Representative Naomi Huffstutter voiced similar concerns.

“I feel like part of the presentation is about taking care of the environment, but I’m wondering if it’s really based upon increasing tourism and making things more inviting for visitors. I guess I’m having a hard time seeing that it’s balanced,” said Huffstutter.

Weiland said the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors is working on affordable housing and vacation rental structure “concurrently,” and she also expects that beneficial uses of water will be examined further.

O’Halloran said the project is not a tourism campaign or seeking more visitors. “I think it’s about protecting the health of the river itself and the community that depends on a healthy river.” He said visitors have increased in the last five years, “but as people are coming, the health of the river has been diminishing by the way people are treating it.”

“We see that as an opportunity,” he continued. “If people are going to come, why can’t they be stewards of the river? Why can’t they leave it better than they found it?” He admitted the opportunity was “aspirational” but worth working toward.

Representative Nic Pereira added that the agency may encounter project fatigue around Guerneville. The area rebranded several years prior, “and we got a dubious slogan and spent a lot of money and didn’t accomplish anything,” he said.

Pereira continued, “I understand it’s not necessarily the same thing, but it sounds and looks very similar,” pointing out that may be partly why Catch Creative hasn’t received its expected participation. Weiland responded that she believes the project will make good with all the organizations supporting it and taking after the “Keep Tahoe Blue” model.

Acknowledging Pereira’s remarks, MAC Chair Pip Marquez de la Plata of the Rio Nido District said his belief “is that the most important people to buy into this are going to be the people that live here because they’ll be able to get that message out if they believe it, too. So, if you can break down any of that resistance even before you get to the creative part, it will make it a much more successful campaign.”

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