06 August 2009

Water Wars on the Russian River

A guest post by Kevin Kanarek*

The Russian River watershed, just north of San Francisco, is surely one of the more progressive and resource-conscious areas of the country. I was staying in Guerneville on the river for a few days, about midway between Santa Rosa and the coast, and I got into a conversation with a local couple about the river and related water issues. They were in their sixties. They had lived in Guerneville over 30 years, raised their kids there and remained involved in the community.

When the topic of water use came up, the man spoke with a deep resentment. I'll paraphrase:
Santa Rosa just keeps dumping on us. Literally! This has been going on for decades. They take the water out of the river for development, always more development. The more water they use, the more waste they'll wind up flushing downstream.

Once we proposed that they put their own intake pipes downstream from their effluent, so they'd need to use the same water we do. They looked at us like we were crazy. "Why would anyone want to do that?" they asked.
I asked him if there was any solution that might work. He smiled.
Well, we had a farmer around here who once drove up to Santa Rosa City Hall and dumped a truckload of manure on the steps. I think that got their attention.
His wife added that another step, at least as effective, had been the construction of a pipeline that ships treated wastewater to the Gysers steam fields – over 10 million gallons per day – where it helps produce enough electricity to power all of San Francisco.

Since then I've been intrigued by the question of water use along the Russian River. One important pitfall which that conversation highlighted: the temptation to frame a resource crisis as a conflict between two opposing groups, in this case the city upstream and the town downstream. Here's what I've learned so far, and some big questions that remain unanswered.

Competing Interests:
  • Downstream Residents: the river provides most of their water supply; sufficient water quality and flow is also needed for tourism and recreation (swimming, canoeing, fishing) which is vital to the local economy

  • Fish: Endangered species such as the Coho and Chinook salmon need unpolluted rivers for spawning with sufficient forest cover to provide shade and erosion control along the riverbank. However, apparently they also require LOW overall flow rates on the lower river near the estuary.

  • Agriculture: Sonoma county vineyards and other agriculture use the lion's share of water. But extractive industries, including logging and gravel mining, also require water for their operations.

  • Urban Residents and Development: Earlier this year, water contractors representing Santa Rosa water users successfully fought a proposed 30% increase in water rates. Meanwhile, the Sonoma County Water Agency continues to try to increase the amount of water it draws from the river from 76,000 to 101,000 Acre Feet/Year (over 30 billion gallons).
Of course there are many more groups and subsets of groups at work, and agencies that represent different interests and mandates. Brenda Adelman at the Russian River Watershed Protection Committee has been reporting on these issue now for some time: see www.rrwpc.org/articles.html

Hypothesis: Could pricing water use in accordance with its scarcity and high environmental impact not only curb runaway development in urban/suburban areas like Santa Rosa (by reducing the economic incentives for developers) but also reduce waste discharges downstream? Less water used equals less wastewater discharged.

Bottom Line: If Guerneville and Santa Rosa can't make peace over the Russian River, what are the chances for India and Pakistan over the Indus?
* Kevin is the Online Content & Strategy Manager for Green21, a multiplatform initiative on sustainability for public television and new media.

3 comments:

  1. here is a link to some good impartial information on the Russian River situation, contrasting it with the Santa Ana, another river with huge and conflicting demands on it:
    http://www.watereducation.org/doc.asp?id=1256

    ReplyDelete
  2. I just returned from a recent trip that CA trip to the Russian River Watershed http://tiny.cc/sjRMw and was impressed with the importance of this stream to this region: it is the lifeblood. More importantly, I was also amazed by how little water was actually flowing in the stream. If current trends (population, drought, etc.) continue, war may be an understatement.

    ReplyDelete
  3. And I wonder how many summer recreational users of the Russian river understand they are often using water imported from another watershed?

    ReplyDelete

Spammers, don't bother. I delete spam.