Sonoma County Sued in Gravel Pit Excavation

Jane Kay, Chronicle Environment Writer
November 11, 2008

Sonoma County Gravel Mining

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in Sonoma County Superior Court against the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and Syar Industries, charges that the Napa gravel company is threatening the county’s most valuable natural resource – its groundwater.

Gravel mining also removes from use valuable streamside farmland, the suit said.

The suit asks that a three-year permit the county granted Syar last month be placed on hold while the county conducts a full environmental review of possible damage to an enormous aquifer that lies in the alluvial gravels of the middle reach of the Russian River.

Plaintiffs include the Westside Association to Save Agriculture, North Coast Rivers Alliance, Russian Riverkeeper and several individuals. The suit doesn’t deal with removing gravel in the river.

Dennis Hill, 58, who grows wine grapes on family land near Healdsburg, said, “Even when I was a kid, there was digging.” His parents fought the gravel mining, too. The activity has “left huge lakes along the river,” he said.

Syar officials were not available for comment on the suit Monday.

After public hearings and debate, the county Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to grant the permit for a 28-acre pit up to 90 feet deep. The pit lies downstream of the confluence of the Russian River and Dry Creek, west of Highway 101. The Sonoma County Planning Commission had denied the permit request in April.

In approving the measure, the board changed a decade-old policy that promised to end nearly all streamside gravel mining by 2006. The original policy had been adopted to preserve rich farmland and laid out restrictions on interim mining, including the size and number of pits and their distance from the river.

Supervisor Paul Kelley, who voted for the permit, said the project “wasn’t adding any more land to be mined. It was finishing an area that had already started to get mined. We needed to make sure reclamation would occur on the site.”

Instead of giving Syar the five years to finish the job that the company had requested, the board approved a permit extension for three years. The board also required reclamation of the pit.

The county had completed an environmental review, said Jeff Brax, deputy county counsel. The board asked for independent scientific evaluation, which showed that Syar’s former pits hadn’t reduced groundwater levels by more than 1 foot on adjacent properties, he said.

But Stephan Volker, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said the pit is only one-third dug and could be restored to its original state and used for agriculture.

The environmental review completed by the county was inadequate, he said. His experts sharply criticized the methodology and data on which the county had relied.

Studies show that removing deep gravel beds that lie on the river’s streamside terraces above the aquifer can seal the soils and affect the groundwater levels, Volker said.

The gravels and fine sediments along the river make up “a natural system and act like a sponge. When the river runs high, it recharges the groundwater. When the river runs low, the groundwater recharges the river,” Volker said.

Gravel mines cause a barrier that blocks the flow of groundwater, he said, which sometimes causes problems for grape growers.

Fine varietals require a low water table in the late summer and fall. If the water table remains high because groundwater flow toward the river is blocked by the pits, soil in the root zone remains saturated, preventing proper maturation of the grapes, Volker said.