Normal Water Year Declared by SCWA Water Rights Permits


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    March 5, 2009: Santa Rosa, CA – On March 1, despite the continued lack of water in Lake Mendocino, the current water year became a “normal” water year based on the requirements in the Sonoma County Water Agency’s water rights permits and State Water Resources Control Board Decision 1610. Decision 1610 was issued by the State Water Board in 1986. Because of the normal year designation, SCWA must increase releases from Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma to meet state-mandated minimum instream flow requirements. Instream flow requirements will be increased from 85 cubic feet per second to 125 cfs in the lower Russian River, and from 75 cfs to 150 cfs in the upper Russian River. The determination of a normal, dry or critically dry year is defined by Decision 1610. The period from February 1 to February 28 was considered a dry year and minimum flow requirements were reduced to 75 cfs and 85 cfs in the upper and lower Russian River, respectively.

    “We are in a water year that is anything but normal,” said Pam Jeane, deputy chief engineer of operations. “Decision 1610 is out of date. It forces us to release more water from our reservoirs when we should be saving every drop of water. Our water rights permits need to be amended to reflect the current Russian River water supply system. We are taking steps to have the permits changed, but it will take many years to do so.”

    According to the water rights permits, whether a water year is normal, dry, or critically dry depends upon year-to-date cumulative inflow into Lake Pillsbury, located in Lake County on the Eel River. If the cumulative inflow is more than 65,700 acre-feet on March 1, the water year becomes normal – which is exactly what happened this year. Had the cumulative inflow remained under 65,700 acre-feet, the water year would have remained dry. Warmer storms have resulted in high levels of snow melt into Lake Pillsbury that nearly tripled the lake’s storage in February.

    SCWA is preparing a Temporary Urgency Change Petition for submittal to the State Water Resources Control Board for reduced Russian River instream flow requirements this summer. The details of the petition will not be determined until April 1, the next time the water year type (normal, dry, or critically dry) is declared. There will likely be a hearing by the State Water Board to consider the petition within a few months of its submittal.

    Decision 1610 is out of date because of recent changes in operations of PG&E’s Potter Valley Project and proposed changes in instream flow management laid out in the Russian River Biological Opinion issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service in the fall of 2008. The biological opinion requires SCWA to petition for changes to Decision 1610 flow requirements to  protect coho salmon and steelhead trout, two Russian River fish species that are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. The need for Decision 1610 changes has been highlighted by the low Lake Mendocino storage levels in 2002, 2004, 2007, 2008 and the current year.

    “Our water rights permit expressly stated that later fishery studies might give rise to a need to change the minimum flows. It also expressly stated that flow changes might be needed in the event of a change in flows from PG&E’s Potter Valley Project, which has now occurred,” said Jeane.
    Moreover, although the water rights permit assumed that greater summertime flows were always better for salmon and steelhead resources, information gathered during the 11 year development of the Biological Opinion developed during the SCWA’s Russian River ESA Section 7 consultation indicates this is not so, at least for the salmonid species. As a result, SCWA often cannot release as much water from Lake Sonoma during the summer as contemplated by Decision 1610.

    Water flows into Lake Mendocino from the Potter Valley Project have been reduced by thirty-three percent due to a 2004 decision by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The Potter Valley Project diverts Eel River water through a Mendocino County powerhouse owned and operated by PG&E into the upper Russian River Basin, and is the source of most of the summer flow in the East Branch Russian River. This 2004 FERC decision reduced the flow requirements for the East Branch Russian River.

    As of March 5 Lake Mendocino’s water storage level still remains low – only 55 percent of capacity – compared to 95 percent last year. Lake Sonoma is currently 90 percent of capacity – compared to101 percent last year.

    SCWA has scheduled public meetings to address water storage, water conservation, and possible State Water Resources Control Board action to reduce summertime Russian River flows.
    Below are the dates and locations of the public meetings:

    Date: Monday, March 16, 2009
    Time: 6:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.
    Location: Ukiah City Hall, 300 Seminary Avenue, Ukiah, CA

    Date: Tuesday, March 17, 2009
    Time: 6:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.
    Location: Healdsburg City Hall, 401 Grove Street, Healdsburg, CA

    Date: Wednesday, March 18, 2009
    Time: 6:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.

    Location: Guerneville Veterans Memorial Hall, First and Church Streets, Guerneville, CA
    Sonoma County Water Agency provides water supply, flood protection and sanitation services for portions of Sonoma and Marin counties. Visit us on the Web at

    Brad Sherwood 707.547.1927
    Cell Phone: 707.322.8192


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