by Thomas C. Moran
River Planning in Sonoma County
Water isn’t free in California. For more than a century, water in the state has been trapped behind dams, funneled into pipelines, routed down canals, and pumped over mountains; it has been allocated, bought, and sold to such an extent that the natural and designed environments are now tightly interwoven. And even as this hybrid waterscape took shape in the twentieth century, new demands were being placed on it.
By the 1970s, growth and development were no longer the only priorities for water use, and this change in social values was embodied by a wave of environmental laws and regulations. We asked to have our rivers, and drink them too. In many ways, the state is still learning to live with the full implications of this shift, and the challenge of reconciling tensions among legitimized water users poses a major challenge for California water design in the 21st century.
Many examples of highly manipulated water environments exist across California. The expansive federal Central Valley Project and the slightly newer State Water Project make it possible to irrigate almonds near Bakersfield and to wash dishes in San Bernardino using rain that fell just miles from the Oregon border. This water passes through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, with its fragile complex of levees, channels, and pumps that is the heart of California’s water capabilities and its water woes. Hundreds of smaller but substantial water projects scattered across the state must likewise balance competing demands for limited resources, but with fewer of the dizzying economic and political complexities of statewide systems.1 A close look at one place that has no choice but to reconcile human and ecological water uses, and perhaps to blur the distinction between the two, can help us understand some of the considerations that will frame water design and management decisions in California for decades to come.
Two hours north of San Francisco, on the western edge of Sonoma wine country, there is a small valley known for its world-class zinfandel and bucolic setting. The waterway down the spine of Dry Creek Valley begins among steep, snowless hills covered with grasslands, oak woodlands, and evergreen stands. The creek eventually settles into a gentle approach toward its confluence with the Russian River, splitting the narrow floodplain of the lower valley. The Dry Creek watershed covers over two hundred square miles, which means that one half of an inch of rain across this area constitutes nearly two billion gallons of water. Just twenty miles inland from the Pacific, wet ocean winds bring more than 44 inches of rain to the watershed in most years, nearly all of it occurring during the winter and spring. Some of this rainfall evaporates, much of it is transpired by plants, just a fraction is used for agriculture, and the rest flows out of the watershed via Dry Creek.2
The Italian immigrants who first cultivated wine grapes in Dry Creek Valley in the mid-1800s must have felt quite at home with California’s Mediterranean climate and fertile soils. But the region has not always been wine country. Wheat fields and apple orchards were more common than vineyards in the valley until the mid 1900s; California wines were not particularly reputable or profitable until 1976. In June of that year, a tasting in Paris was staged as a faceoff between France and California. The superiority of the French wines was a foregone conclusion, at least until it wasn’t the conclusion at all. In a blind test, a panel of nine French judges gave top honors to California wines, a stunning outcome which Time Magazine reported as “The Judgment of Paris.”3 George Taber, the reporter for Time, reflected recently that the judgment “created a market for California wines that hadn’t existed before … literally overnight.”4 The subsequent rise in California wine grape values, combined with the high quality and premium branding of Sonoma wines, created the economic incentives that quickly transformed Dry Creek Valley into the vineyard monoculture that it is today. The transition was lucrative; the valley’s 2010 wine grape harvest was valued at $40M for just six thousand acres of grapes.5
Despite the dominance of grapes in the valley’s landscapes and livelihoods, water is an almost equally valuable export. The Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) collects $30M per year for providing water to cities and districts in Sonoma and Marin counties.6,7 The key to this supply is Warm Springs Dam, which fills a narrow gap in Dry Creek Valley fourteen miles upstream from the Russian River.8 Conceived as a collaboration between SCWA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (“the Corps”), construction was delayed for decades by funding shortfalls, local opposition, and legal battles that reached the U.S. Supreme Court. When the dam was finished in 1983, it was the last big federal project of the California dam boom. It stores a two-year water supply for half a million residents of Sonoma and Marin counties, and reduces floods in the valley below it by 80 percent.9,10 The mouth of Dry Creek is less than 10 miles from the city of Santa Rosa, the ninth largest city in northern California and the biggest customer of SCWA water. Dry Creek is the supply conduit: there is no other way to get water from behind the dam to the water agency collector pumps along the Russian River.
This role for the creek is problematic for folks like Bill Hearn, a supervising biologist at the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), who sees this arrangement as “basically treating fourteen miles of critical habitat as a conveyor belt,”11 which is to say that cities and farms aren’t the only constituents of the creek. Nature also needs the water, and the NMFS, the federal agency responsible for enforcing the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for ocean-dwelling fish like salmon, is a powerful ally of several fish species indigenous to the region. A 2008 study found a bleak outlook for endangered coho salmon throughout the Russian River water basin, with only somewhat better prospects for threatened steelhead.12 These species evolved in conjunction with their surroundings, adapting to take advantage of the full complexity of physical, chemical, and biological processes in the region. When human development altered these processes, the environment was made less hospitable for many native fish and wildlife. Their survival now depends in part on how well we understand our shared ecology, and how far we are willing to go to apply this understanding.
The Human Factor
Each of these groups has a legitimate claim to the water in Dry Creek. An estimated 98% of the property in the Russian River region is privately owned,13 including virtually all of the land adjacent to Dry Creek, and this ownership comes with rights that predate other human uses of water in the valley. Specifically, landowners control physical access to the creek, so their cooperation is needed for any research or work in it, with few exceptions. The combination of legal rights, economic clout, and political engagement gives the landowners and wine growers of Dry Creek Valley a strong voice for preserving their current level of access to the water in the valley.
The State Water Resource Control Board (“the Board”) is responsible for surface water rights allocations in California. The Board granted the SCWA a water right that is equivalent to 11 inches of rainfall in the region that drains into Lake Sonoma behind Warm Springs Dam. However, SCWA responsibilities extend beyond keeping a consistent flow to homes and businesses, as the agency must also maintain the environmental health of the Russian River basin by managing the waterways in compliance with state and federal regulations. Like many places in California, the Russian River water system is sorely stressed in dry years, and the supply margins are only getting thinner with a reduction in artificial transfers to the basin.14
It might be tempting to villainize urban water users as oblivious consumers of natural resources, but Californians looking to place blame should keep in mind that they almost certainly fall into this category themselves, since nearly everyone in the state lives in areas classified as urban.15 Furthermore, per capita urban water consumption has actually declined within California since 1995.16 This is not to say that urban water conservation and efficiency are anything less than essential to the future of the state, but the fact is that cities are expected to provide safe, clean, cheap water to all who choose to move in. John Dracup, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, makes this point with the rhetorical question, “When you moved to your town, did you call ahead to ask if they had sufficient water for you?”
Fish in Mind
Fish have only recently been treated like legitimate water users. The vast system of concrete, steel, and turbines that forms the backbone of California water infrastructure was built despite the fish, not with their needs in mind. But then the landmark environmental laws of the 1970s gave legal credibility to what previously had been merely obvious: fish need water. And not just leftover water, but dynamic water systems that closely resemble the streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans where each species evolved. The federal Endangered Species Act of 1973 has emerged as perhaps the most powerful and controversial environmental law in the country, a future that would have surprised the Senators who voted unanimously in its favor and the conservative icon who signed it into law. “The price of economic growth need not, and will not be, deterioration in the quality of our lives and our surroundings,” President Nixon declared earlier that year. It has been said that as few as four people in Washington, DC truly understood the vast implications of the law.17
The Extinction Vortex
California’s climate encourages ambitious water design.18 Nearly all of the rain and snow in the state falls from October to April, while human demand for water peaks during the dry season from May through September. The vast majority of this precipitation happens in the north part of the state, yet most of the population chooses to live in the arid south. What we call droughts and floods are simply natural weather patterns; the “typical” water year is a myth. Native vegetation and wildlife evolved to survive and thrive in this erratic environment, but the most recent wave of human development expended monumental efforts to tame the state’s wild rivers and wetlands. Until the 1970s, little legal or political leverage existed to counteract the promise of economic growth that accompanies a stable, predictable water system, and so California’s water infrastructure expanded as quickly as its dreams.
As the environmental costs of unbridled growth became impossible to ignore, a tide of federal and state laws reflected a shift in social values. The ESA was virtually unopposed as it passed through both houses of Congress and across the desk of President Nixon. But, within a decade, the broad scope and language of the ESA became a powerful lever to wield against the growth priority, and it increasingly influences water design and management in California.
Coho salmon used to thrive along the central California coast, but today they are nearly extinct, with as few as five hundred fish returning to their home streams at the end of their three-year life cycle.19 The coho species native to this region was listed as threatened in 1996, and by 2005 its status had deteriorated to endangered. There are many reasons for this decline, including the cumulative effects of logging, dams, land development, over-harvesting, and water pollution. But at the heart of the coho’s plight is the loss of places to spawn and grow large enough to journey to the sea.19 The ESA treats habitat loss just as seriously as it treats direct harm of a protected species,20 and this is what recently disrupted the fragile equilibrium of water use on Dry Creek.
When coho were listed as a threatened species in 1996, the Army Corps of Engineers was required to consult with the NMFS to determine if any of the Corps’ operations in the Russian River water basin might be harmful to these or other protected fish. A key piece of this assessment was a 2001 study by teams of fish biologists that rated habitat on Dry Creek for three different levels of flow released from the dam,21 and what they observed was bleak for the salmon. One serious problem was that the speed of water in the creek was too fast for young coho to survive through the dry season. This evidence, along with other harmful conditions found on the main Russian River, led to the conclusion that the status quo jeopardized the survival of coho in the region.22 The long consultation process culminated in a 2008 Biological Opinion, in which the NMFS minced no words in describing the gravity of the situation: “The Russian River population of coho salmon is likely in an extinction vortex.”12 Another key finding of this study was that the lower stretch of Dry Creek is critical to the survival of the species, an idea that is ironic to those who knew the creek before the dam.
Long-time residents of the valley will tell you that there never were any coho in the part of Dry Creek that is now below the dam. And, though historical fish counts are sparse and imprecise, science supports these recollections. Coho need cold water. Before the dam, Dry Creek warmed up as it trickled slowly through the valley under the summer sun, making the water too hot for the species by the time it reached the lower valley. So, any coho in the creek likely summered far upstream or in its tributaries, in shady stretches where the water stayed cool as it seeped from the ground. Before Sonoma County was utterly transformed by human development, the Dry Creek watershed accounted for only about 4% of coho habitat in the Russian River basin.23 Now, water released from Warm Springs Dam is deliberately kept cool enough to support fish in the creek below. Because of the broad degradation of regional waterways, this means that lower Dry Creek and its tributaries could represent up to 40% of all remaining potential coho habitat in the basin today.12
The goal of coho recovery on Dry Creek is not, then, to restore some historic condition, but to redesign the waterway and its immediate surroundings for a specific purpose: to serve as spawning and rearing habitat for coho and other endangered fish. Ecologists refer to this approach as “reconciliation,” a conservation strategy that acknowledges the vast, perhaps irreversible impacts of human activities, and aims to achieve specific ecological goals within a manipulated environment. Preservation of any remaining undisturbed ecosystems remains the highest priority for many conservationists, and restoration to some previous condition may be desirable where it can be realistically accomplished. But it is likely that most future efforts to protect native species in California will involve at least some aspect of reconciliation.16
An Approach to Reconciliation
How might the competing demands of human uses and ecological needs be reconciled, given the reality of the creek today? One approach is to tailor the flow for the benefit of the fish. However, because the water agency uses the creek as its main transmission channel, this would stress municipal water supplies throughout the region. A pipeline has been proposed to bypass high summer supply flows, but there is a consensus that such a project would take a decade or more to complete, which may be too late to save the coho. This option is estimated to cost upwards of $160M and is unpopular with nearly everyone, including landowners who are concerned that large changes to the creek flow could infringe on their water rights. Even if a pipeline is someday built, reduced summer flows alone would only go so far toward improving fish habitat on Dry Creek.12
The immediate approach to water reconciliation on Dry Creek is simple to describe, if harder to execute successfully. The needs and habits of coho have been studied for decades, so, in principle, creating high-quality habitat is simply a matter of giving the fish what they want. Because the water quality is already excellent, the most serious shortcoming in Dry Creek is the lack of physical habitat for juvenile coho. These fish require a diversity of deep pools and quick (but not too quick) riffles, with boulders and large woody debris to provide shelter from fast flows and larger fish. Coho also need plenty of native vegetation to provide shade and to nurture a vibrant food web. In short, the design challenge is to introduce complexity, which is the opposite of what is typically found downstream from dams.
To create this complexity, six miles of Dry Creek will be manipulated to look and function more like a natural water system. This involves reshaping the creek bed, introducing boulders, logs, and other woody debris, and constructing dead-end channels and ponds connected to the creek, as well as controlling non-native vegetation nearby.24,25 This endeavor is not cheap—changes to the creek and follow-up monitoring are expected to cost $6-8M per mile.26 But the outcome could be very important to recovery of protected fish. The NMFS is hopeful that habitat creation could support over 30,000 young coho in Dry Creek. The number of these that survive hazards beyond the creek and return to spawn is a more complicated matter.12 If this approach is not effective, the costly and unpopular pipeline plan will go into motion, which means that the success of the habitat project could become a one hundred million dollar question.
Sidebar: Water Data as Art, works by Adrien Segal
Data are just numbers until someone interprets them. This interpretation can take many forms, as with the art of Adrien Segal, a California native who designs and creates sculptural furniture that is based on the shapes of water data.
Adrien describes her work in the following way: “I make sculpture as a means to communicate data and statistical information about the intersection of humans and the natural world. Simplifying complex ideas, my design method involves translating sets of data into graphics—shapes, lines, and forms—which are then fabricated out of tangible materials such as metal and wood. I aim to present scientific information about fascinating aspects of the natural world in an unexpected poetic form. Bringing together rationality of scientific analysis with the emotional realm of sensory experience, the sculptures push scientific and artistic inquiry in an unanticipated direction, revealing new capacities in the representation of information. The resulting objects are data embodied in physical space, making the information accessible to viewers in an alternative medium that engages the body though intuitive understanding of sculptural form and creates a space to contemplate ideas about the natural world and our role within it.”
Opinions vary about the prospects to save the coho by any means. A recent study ranked coho from this region as second most vulnerable to extinction of all the freshwater fishes native to California.27 Research about the effectiveness of habitat modification finds mixed results,28,29 though some methods, such as in-stream log and boulder structures, appear to be broadly successful.30 California river restoration projects have become increasingly common in the last thirty years.31 Close to $50M has already been invested in river and watershed restoration in the Russian River basin since 1980, primarily to counteract the effects of logging and other land development.13 A reconciliation effort in Lagunitas Creek, forty miles south of Dry Creek, is considered a qualified success for its role in supporting the largest population of native coho in the region.32
When asked whether the Dry Creek habitat effort could be successful, Rick Rogers, a fisheries biologist for the NMFS, answered directly, “We wouldn’t be encouraging this level of effort and cost if we didn’t believe the benefits were commensurate … we think the benefits will be huge.” Rogers bases this confidence on the excellent water quality in Dry Creek, the comprehensive scope of the science and implementation around the project, and his belief that the right people with the right experience are involved. He also emphasizes a close collaboration with the California Department of Fish and Game to exploit their expertise and to ensure compliance with California’s own Endangered Species Act.
Peter Moyle, a prominent fish biologist at the University of California at Davis and author of Inland Fishes of California, was more measured in his response about prospects for recovery of the regional coho population. Noting the many factors other than waterway management that conspire against these fish, he offered, “It is hard to be optimistic about the long-term future of central California coast coho.” However, he added that the advantages on Dry Creek, including potential benefits for other native species, make it “worthy of investment as a site for both coho recovery and for research and demonstration” of recovery methods.
The matter of defining success on Dry Creek is a work in progress, though it is expected to include some measure of whether coho are using the newly created habitat, as well as an indication of an overall positive effect on the regional coho population.33 But lurking just beyond this is the broader question of whether such efforts could or should be considered successful even if the coho go extinct. What if the coho disappear but steelhead thrive? Or Chinook salmon? The Endangered Species Act requires the protection of all listed species; it does not permit any sort of triage that would allow one fish to perish if others could benefit. In Dry Creek, the habitat creation effort is expected to benefit all of the protected species, but it is worth pondering whether putting equal emphasis on all species is always the optimal strategy for managing our dynamic ecology, especially in the midst of broader climate shifts that will favor some species over others.16
Like many other residents of Dry Creek Valley, Greg Chambers, a vintner and former president of the Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley trade association, supports efforts on the creek to try to save the coho. As he sees it, “If it works, everyone gets a nicer creek.” But he also voiced a question shared by many: “How much is a fish worth?” The ESA treats this as an open-ended question, but there is always a tradeoff of money and effort that could be prioritized elsewhere. In this way, choosing which pieces of our ecology to value and protect is a design decision in itself.
Whatever the outcome, the reconciliation approach for Dry Creek is not a template that can be blindly applied elsewhere. Ecological and human dynamics tend to be highly specific to each circumstance. In some places, more drastic measures may be appropriate, such as the planned removal of dams on the Klamath River. The values of stakeholders can also vary widely, as with the case of indigenous tribes and the Bureau of Reclamation working together in the Klamath basin. But Dry Creek offers some instructive perspectives about how an increasing number of water design and management decisions will be made in the future. It is important to acknowledge the preexisting tensions among groups with different types of legitimate water claims, and to understand what incentives or fears might motivate each group to cooperate with or obstruct a particular design alternative. Many future water design decisions in California will be made in the context of complying with one or more environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act. This means that for a design solution to be considered, it must be injected into highly structured planning and enforcement processes. Furthermore, for the next fifty to one hundred years, most water design in the state will happen amidst an expansive legacy of twentieth century water infrastructure that may be anachronistic to our needs and values today.
The future of a single waterway like Dry Creek is not all that is at stake. Warm Springs Dam is a node in a water network that extends down the Russian River basin, up and down the coast and out into the ocean as far as the salmon and steelhead roam. The next generation of California water design must acknowledge this interconnectedness and decide how the network can be used to craft the 21st century waterscape for cities and towns, farms and fish. We cannot turn back the clock on centuries of environmental manipulation, but we can take charge of the decisions that will shape what comes next.
The author is grateful to Prof. James Hunt at UC Berkeley for an introduction to the fascinating story of Dry Creek and for his guidance on early drafts of this paper, and to Carolyn Remick at the Berkeley Water Center for conversations that shaped the story. The insightful and constructive comments provided by two anonymous reviewers were invaluable. Water data analysis was made possible by the technology and support of Microsoft Research.
1. For thorough and enjoyable histories of California water development see Norris Hundley Jr., The Great Thirst: Californians and Water-A History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001) and Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water (New York: Penguin, 1993).
2. Water also seeps into the ground, but the climate, geology, and water uses in the Dry Creek watershed result in fairly stable groundwater levels on a year-to-year basis, so this factor can be ignored for gross estimates of the yearly water balance.
8. SCWA also manages water from other sources in the Russian River basin, but the agency policy is to use water released from Warm Springs Dam as its primary municipal supply source.7
9. SCWA, “Final Current Conditions Inventory Report, Dry Creek: Warm Springs Dam to Russian River,” Prepared by Inter-Fluve, Inc for: Sonoma County Water Agency, Santa Rosa, CA, Sonoma County, CA, Dec. 2010.
10. Flood protection diminishes further downstream of the dam. For example, Warm Springs Dam controls 60% of the flow out of the Dry Creek watershed, but less than 10% of the flow in the Russian River at Guerneville, 35 miles downstream from the dam.
12. NMFS, “Biological Opinion for Water Supply, Flood Control Operations, and Channel Maintenance in the Russian River watershed, Endangered Species Act Section 7 Consultation,” National Marine Fisheries Service, Santa Rosa, California, F/SWR/2006/07316, Sep. 2008.
13. J. Christian-Smith and A. M. Merenlender, “The Disconnect Between Restoration Goals and Practices: A Case Study of Watershed Restoration in the Russian River Basin, California,” Restoration Ecology, 18 (2010), 95–102.
14. The Coyote Valley Dam is 60 miles upstream the Russian River from Dry Creek, where it regulates releases from the reservoir called Lake Mendocino. A significant amount of the annual flow into this reservoir is an incidental transfer from the Eel River basin that has been piped through a mountain to power a private hydroelectric facility since 1908. Recent environmental regulatory rulings have reduced this transfer by up to half, and renewal of the operating license in 2022 is in question.
15. USDA Economic Research Service, “California Fact Sheet: 2010 Rural, Urban, and Total Population.” [Online]. Available: http://www.ers.usda.gov/statefacts/CA.htm. [Accessed: 01-Nov-2011].
18. T. E. Grantham, A. M. Merenlender, and V. H. Resh, “Climatic influences and anthropogenic stressors: an integrated framework for streamflow management in Mediterranean-climate California, U.S.A.,” Freshwater Biology, 55 (2010), 188–204.
19. P. Moyle, J. Israel, and S. Purdy, “Salmon, steelhead, and trout in California, status of an emblematic fauna,” Center For Watershed Sciences. Davis, CA. A report commissioned by California Trout, 2008.
20. Coincidentally, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld the importance of habitat as a consideration for protection of listed species was decided against a lawsuit that originated in the author’s childhood town of Sweet Home, OR. Babbit v. Sweet Home Chapter of Communities for a Great Oregon, 515 U.S. 687, 1995.
22. Threatened steelhead were also found to be jeopardized, though less imminently than coho. Chinook salmon, also a threatened species, were determined to be relatively unscathed by Dry Creek water operations because their young leave the creek by late summer.
23. B. C. Spence, S. L. Harris, J. Weldon, M. M. Goslin, A. Agrawal, and E. Mora, “Historical occurrence of coho salmon in streams of the central California coast coho salmon evolutionarily significant unit,” National Marine Fisheries Service, Southwest Fisheries Science Center, 2005.
28. P. Roni, K. Hanson, and T. Beechie, “Global Review of the Physical and Biological Effectiveness of Stream Habitat Rehabilitation Techniques,” North American Journal of Fisheries Management, 28 (2008), 856–890.
29. M. Palmer, J. D. Allan, J. Meyer, and E. S. Bernhardt, “River Restoration in the Twenty-First Century: Data and Experiential Knowledge to Inform Future Efforts,” Restoration Ecology, 15 (2007), 472–481.
30. S. L. Whiteway, P. M. Biron, A. Zimmermann, O. Venter, and J. W. A. Grant, “Do in-stream restoration structures enhance salmonid abundance? A meta-analysis,” Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, 67 (2010), 831–841.
32. G. Andrew, E. Ettinger, E. Childress, M. Piovarcsik, D. Morell, and A. Wolf, “Lagunitas Creek sediment and riparian management plan review and evaluation report, 1997–2009,” Marin Municipal Water District, Jun. 2011.