Lawsuit Imminent Over Water Diversions Killing Salmon and Steelhead in Russian and Gualala Rivers

November 17, 2009

San Francisco — The Center for Biological Diversity, Northern California River Watch, and Coast Action Group sent notice of intent to sue California’s State Water Resources Control Board for authorizing water diversions that harm federally protected salmon and steelhead trout in the Russian River and Gualala River watersheds. The water board is violating the Endangered Species Act by permitting water diversions in Mendocino and Sonoma counties, primarily for vineyards, that adversely affect salmon.

Salmon image

Water diversions and pumping from streams for grape growing de-water rivers and creeks where listed fish species spawn, harming imperiled coho salmon, chinook salmon, and steelhead trout. Vineyards pull groundwater and divert stream flows to irrigate, protect from frost and heat, and irrigate grape vines post-harvest. De-watering of streams occurs not only during spring and summer vineyard irrigation, but also due to winter “frost protection” pumping to protect budding grapes from frost. When freezing temperatures hit the North Coast, vineyards pumping water for frost protection can dry up the Russian River and its tributaries, stranding and killing young salmon.

“Twelve years after the state water board determined that pumping for frost protection is harmful to salmon and concluded it to be a waste and unreasonable use of water, the board has still failed to take appropriate action on frost irrigation,” said Jeff Miller, a conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Further fish kills are unacceptable — coho salmon are near extinction in the Russian River, and chinook salmon and steelhead are not far behind.”

In the spring of both 2008 and 2009 there were fish kills due to excessive water diversions in the main stem of the Russian River at Hopland and in Felta Creek, a tributary of the Russian River. There are at least 60,000 acres of vineyards in the Russian River watershed, 70 percent of which are within 300 feet of salmon streams. The Wheatfield Fork of the Gualala River is also experiencing dramatic changes from over-pumping, and fish habitat and survival are being significantly harmed.

“River Watch is hopeful that this notice will protect the last of the species and ultimately allow the restoration of fish runs,” said River Watch member Larry Hanson.

The State Water Resources Control Board permits and authorizes harmful water pumping, diversions, and water storage and continues to issue water appropriation permits in the over-allocated Russian River and Gualala River watersheds, in conflict with public trust values and beneficial uses. In 1997, the water board released a report identifying vineyard practices, particularly frost protection activities, that adversely impact federally listed species of fish struggling to survive in the Russian River basin and its tributaries. The National Marine Fisheries Service requested in the spring of 2009 that the water board pass regulations to protect listed fish species, but the board has continued to allow frost-protection withdrawals and unreasonable and excessive water use to continue in these watersheds. The water board is violating the Endangered Species Act by consenting to improper use and by failing to enforce existing regulations.

The region’s significant fisheries are near extinction: coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) on the central California coast are listed as endangered by both the state and federal governments; chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) along the California coast are federally listed as threatened; and steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) on the central California coast and northern California are federally listed as threatened. Central California coast coho salmon are now at only 1 to 2 percent of their historical abundance. Coho have been eliminated from more than half of their historical streams in California, and in recent years, only 500 to 1,000 wild coho have returned to the entire central coast region to spawn. California coast chinook salmon have declined 97 to 99 percent from historical runs. Northern California coast steelhead have declined by 90 percent and central California coast steelhead have declined by 80 to 90 percent in the past 50 years.

Salmon and steelhead spawn in freshwater streams and young fish require habitat with sufficient flows; deep pools; adequate food and shelter; and clean, cold water in order to survive long enough to migrate to the sea. The huge amounts of water withdrawn for grape growing dries up spawning beds and kills fish or leaves young salmon and steelhead stranded in hot and crowded shallow pools, where they are exposed to overcrowding and predators.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national nonprofit conservation organization with more than 240,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Northern California River Watch is a nonprofit organization in Sebastopol dedicated to the protection and enhancement of the waters of the State of California including all rivers, creeks, streams and groundwater in Northern California.

Coast Action Group is a nonprofit organization in Point Arena dedicated to the protection of fishery and water-quality resources on the North Coast of California.