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The Ailing Russian


H.R. Downs, O.W.L. Foundation president

posted May 23, 2004


The Russian River has been under considerable pressure that could easily destroy it as a safe water resource. Could it die?

In 1997, the Russian River made the American River Organization's top 20 "endangered Rivers of America", a frightening distinction. For at least fifty years gravel mining has removed the small stones and sands of the river banks and bottom. A river stores its water, most of which is underground, in between these very particles. By removing gravel, the water-bearing capacity is reduced. The sands and stones also clean dirty water and remove many pollutants. By reducing the quantity of water overall, and in the process taking away the natural filtration system the quality of the water is automatically reduced.

Where did all that gravel go?

Gravel is used---in copious quantities---to manufacture concrete, asphalt and various other materials used in construction. In other words, the gravel was directly converted to urban sprawl. Much of this urban sprawl was unwisely allowed to cover up vital groundwater recharge lands. Groundwater is recharged, or refilled, when it rains. This doesn't happen everywhere. Recharge takes place in particular areas where soil permeability and underlying geology allow water to dribble beneath the earth and top off the "tank", known as an aquifer.

Sonoma County Planning Commissioner Rue Furch was recently quoted in the Albion Monitor as describing the "3%" of Sonoma County that has been developed like this: "Three percent doesn't sound like much, but it's interesting where it is located, most of the roads, parking lots, and buildings are in the major recharge areas for our watershed."

Groundwater aquifers are also refilled by seepage through the ground from rivers. So, a reduced Russian River has a direct effect on filling up groundwater resources in places a far away as Rohnert Park in the southern Santa Rosa plain.

In the same article in the Albion Monitor, Penn State hydrologist David De Walle reveals his discovery that increased urbanization contributes to flooding. River levels rise but the water is too fast and too furious to seep back into the ground, which why they call it "flooding". It races through watercourses ripping up the banks and spilling over to damage houses, fields and other valuable property.

Global warming will probably bring more rain. What will happen then?

Outside flows to stop

For almost 90 years, a small hydroelectric plant operated by Pacific Gas & Electric has released water from the Eel River into the Russian River. The diversions have been substantial and they did two things:

1. The diversions reduced the Eel River to a muddy ditch, destroyed a multi-million dollar fishing industry and seriously affected the economy along the Eel, mostly in Mendocino County.

2. The "extra" water that flowed into the Russian River was pumped out of the river by the Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) and used to fuel massive urban sprawl.

The result of a recent court challenge to SCWA and PG&E means that, eventually, these diversions will be curtailed at some as yet to be determined amount. But curtailed they will be. With less water flowing into the Russian River, SCWA will have less water to sell to Sonoma and Marin Cities which will have an inevitable effect on future sprawl.

Less flow into the Russian from the Eel also means the underground recharge, the seepage that flows all the way to Rohnert Park, will also be reduced. Pumping these aquifers, even at current rates, will undoubtedly exacerbate existing overdraft conditions, a dangerous possibility.

The "solution-to-pollution-is-dillution" thingy

Less water in the Russian will also increase the saturation of dangerous pollutants that are already being pumped into the River. Urban areas not only pump water out of the ground, cover up groundwater recharge areas and contribute to flooding, they also produce enormous quantities of raw sewage. Getting rid of so much raw sewage has become as big a problem as finding dwindling supplies of clean water.

Sewage treatment plants put this stuff in settling tanks, there's one on Llano Road, where the solids sink to the bottom, the so-called "primary" treatment. Special microorganisms accomplish the "secondary" treatment by eating virtually 95% of biological materials.

"Tertiary", or the third level of treatment, is rather controversial because hundreds of techniques may satisfy this definition. None transform secondary-treated raw sewage into anything close to drinking water. Essentially, tertiary treatment consists of filtering what's left through approximately three or four feet of gravel, sand and coal with a dash of chlorine added. Hopefully this bare-bones process removes most of the heavy metals and most of the nutrients (water-soluble nitrates and phosphates that cause excessive growth of algae and other water plants, which deplete the water's oxygen supply), but this filtration never gets 100% of these pollutants.

Worse, it isn't even designed to remove potential and proven pollutants, like ingredients found in suntan lotion, perfumes, and most dangerous of all, pharmaceuticals. Every person in Sonoma County passes whatever drugs they ingest into the sewer system. Every antibiotic, anti-seizure drug, sleeping pill, mood elevator as well as estrogen and testosterone supplement goes right through all the sewage treatments and come out the other end. This tertiary treated effluent can contain a chemical soup that sometimes can recombine individual pharmaceuticals into wholly new and unknown compounds with unknown effects on human beings.

Amazingly, this toxic soup is dumped back into the Russian River above the water collectors that feed the aqueduct. The aqueduct, of course, carries drinking water to all the cities in Sonoma County (except Sebastopol) as well as to cities in Marin County.

Reduced water in the Russian only means that these chemicals will archive greater concentrations and pose an even greater risk to human health. The River God only knows what it's doing to the river itself.

Many useful links in the library. Click above.

O.W.L. Foundation


Support your O.W.L. Foundation

Albion Monitor

David DeWalle, Ph.D.

Center for Watershed Protection

Imperviousness and Watershed Development

EPA's Glossary for the Eight Tools of Watershed Protection

Tertiary Treated Wastewater

Water Pollution FAQ

USGS page on emerging toxics and hydrology

Frogs as global disaster indicators

Animals' Sexual Changes Linked to Waste, Chemicals