Quick Drop in Water Level Kills Coho

Frost protection measures to save crops stranded fish in Russian River tributary


Published: Saturday, April 4, 2009 at 3:40 a.m.

coho salmon
JEFF KAN LEE / The Press Democrat
Coho salmon such as these fingerlings are raised at the Don Clausen hatchery at Warm Springs Dam and released into the Russian River.

Coho salmon migrating toward the ocean this week were killed by a sudden water-level drop in a Russian River tributary near Healdsburg, the result of efforts to protect crops from frost, officials said.

The deaths of the endangered sal-mon add urgency to a multi-agency task force meeting, scheduled Tuesday in Sacramento, aimed at finding ways to protect crops from frost while preserving threatened and endangered fish in the Russian River and its tributaries.

“We are very concerned about the situation,” said Dan Torquemada, a special agent with the National Marine Fisheries Service.

His agency’s law enforcement arm, the state Attorney General and the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office are investigating this week’s fish deaths and are giving no further details, he said.

Tuesday’s meeting in Sacramento before the state Water Resources Control Board stems from another fish kill under similar circumstances last year, one the federal fisheries agency had predicted would be repeated this year.

When freezing temperatures hit the North Coast in April last year, farmers simultaneously pumping water for frost protection caused a sharp drop in the Russian River and some tributaries, stranding and killing a “significant” number of newly hatched salmon “fry.”

The fish kills were in Felta Creek in Sonoma County and the Russian River near Hopland in Mendocino County, fisheries officials said. Exact numbers of fish deaths were not available.

The fish deaths last year spawned the creation of a task force that includes federal, state and local water and fish agencies and farmers. The group has been working since June to find solutions to the problem, which has been worsened by the ongoing drought.

“It seems imperative to act now,” Steven Edmondson, the agency’s Northern California habitat supervisor, wrote in a February letter to the water board.

The letter sent shock waves through the farming community.

Farmers in Sonoma and Mendocino counties are worried the state will ban frost protection this spring and force additional regulations on Russian River water users.

Local water agencies and farmers along the Russian River do not want a frost ban or additional state regulations, which could include a state-appointed “water master.”

Water diversions from the Napa River for frost protection purposes have been under the control of a water master since the 1970s.

The program prevents farmers from pumping from the river all at the same time or individually taking more than their share.

The water master program is restrictive to some degree, but “generally I think it’s a very good program,” said Ross Hall of Swanson Vineyards in Napa County.

Sonoma and Mendocino counties farmers and water officials prefer to solve the problem locally.

“We don’t want to see a water master,” said Sonoma County Water Agency spokesman Brad Sherwood.

The Sonoma County agency, which controls water releases from Lake Mendocino into the Russian River, has been working with Mendocino County water agencies and farmers to better coordinate frost water demand with water releases from the dam to avoid sudden drops in river levels.

The agency also must conserve water in the lake — which is at a near-record low — for domestic and farming uses and fish later in the year.

The Russian River Flood Control and Water Conservation Improvement District on Tuesday will present proposals for better regulating water at the local level.

They include creating guidelines for coordinated action and adding water-sensing gauges closer to Lake Mendocino.

Currently, the nearest gauge to the dam is in Hopland, 14 miles downstream, said district Executive Director Sean White. The district holds the Ukiah Valley’s rights to Russian River water.

When the Russian River is low, it takes hours for a sudden water level drop near Ukiah to register on Sonoma County Water Agency monitors, White said.

Sonoma County needs to be able to increase water flows from the dam as soon as farmers start pumping in order to avoid the sharp water drops that have stranded and killed fish, he said.

Increasing the number of off-stream storage reservoirs and the use of recycled water also would help, White said.

The meeting will begin about 11 a.m. at the water board’s offices at 1001 I St. A video of the meeting will be available at here.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or