Change Makers

Steven Knudsen, James Gore and Craig Anderson float on the waters of the Russian River just northeast of the Wohler Bridge.

Supervisor lists increasing river access among goals

Pointing out fish, turtles, various species of birds and occasionally capsizing in the cool water of the Russian River, more than a dozen people from Sonoma County agencies, businesses and nonprofits navigated their kayaks from Alexander Valley to Steelhead Beach in Forestville last week. Supervisor James Gore said in an interview after the trip that “what struck me the most was the amount of wildlife that I saw.” He compared the river in Sonoma County to murky waters in Mendocino County where sediment from Lake Mendocino clouded the water to the point that kayakers didn’t know if they were in six inches or six feet of water, he said.

Another significant difference pointed out by Gore was the removal of decades-old river flow infrastructure installed by the Army Corps of Engineers. In the 1940s and ‘50s, engineers used massive steel beams, cable and even old cars to slow the waters of the Russian River for use in irrigating crops. The hulks of metal of what would be classic cars still line sections of the river in Mendocino County. Sonoma County had a similar problem but much of it was removed in the 1990s.

“Prior to our getting busy ‘fixing’ the river it used to be up to three-quarters of mile wide in areas,” said Russian Riverkeeper Don McEnhill. As recent as 1940 the river between Healdsburg and Wohler Bridge used to occupy 3,200 acres and by 2005 it shrunk to 807 acres, he said.

“At the same time the river’s shape changed from a wide buzzard’s-back shallow, low-sloping profile to a deep, mostly vertical walled, capital-U-shape. Back when the river was wider with lots of cut-off oxbow swamps and side channels it had greater depth with some fishing holes in the lower river up to 30 feet deep. You can see them on wall of Pat’s Diner in Guerneville,” McEnhill said.

The Headwaters-to-Sea Russian River Descent is an ongoing collaboration between Supervisor Gore, Sonoma County LandPaths and the Russian Riverkeeper. Gore said that “change makers” have been invited on a paddle down the Russian River to meet face to face and talk about how best to plan the future of Sonoma County’s watershed.

Craig Anderson, executive director of LandPaths, and Riverkeeper McEnhill took turns leading the group and making sure no one fell behind. “For so many years, all of these agencies have been in their own camp,” said Anderson. “So, we said ‘let’s go camping.’” The three-day camping and kayaking trips down the waterway have been attended by a wide variety of people who work in sectors that have influence on river projects, or affect them. “We’re seeing the cross section we were hoping for,” said Anderson. The first trip took place last month, beginning at Lake Mendocino, and this most recent trip, from Sept. 7 to 9.

On this, the second leg of a tour down the river, 10 agencies were represented by more than a dozen scientists, industry and environmental advocates, farmers, business owners and people with an interest in the future of Sonoma County’s main water source. “This has been the biggest icebreaker,” said Gore. Participants included Sonoma Resource Conservation District, Army Corps of Engineers, the Sonoma County Farm Bureau and Larry Laba, who operates a Healdsburg kayaking and canoeing business, among others.

Gore said that Russian River tributaries have always been a main concern for him, and named four goals: Increase the water quality of the river, achieve sustainable groundwater management, create more access points to the river and to work with the Army Corps of Engineers to remove their old infrastructure projects and solve the problem of sediment release from Lake Mendocino.

Steven Knudsen, communications and development coordinator for the Sonoma County Farm Bureau was there at the start, and paddled on the first and last day of the second leg. He said that when he first moved to Sonoma County, the river was a landmark and place for recreation. After joining the Farm Bureau, he said saw it also as a resource for the agricultural community. After spending time on the water with the diverse group of participants he said his perspective of the river has continued to evolve.

“Getting in the boat and dodging rocks and trees and talking to (everyone) gives you a new perspective,” said Knudsen. “Not until you get in the river do you understand it.” The ag advocate said the experience comes with a responsibility, “We are now ambassadors of this experience,” he said.

Landowners in the area also took advantage of the tour of the river by Supervisor Gore and the other participants. While paddling through Alexander Valley, Gore was called out by name starting with a bright yellow laminated sign zip tied to tree branches at the water’s edge that read: “Welcome, Supervisor Gore and friends. Start here.” An arrow pointed down river to a series of other signs with various messages.

One of the notes, which had been tied to a steel cable read: “The Russian River is a managed system that has not been maintained for decades. This failure has resulted in millions of $$ spent by the taxpayers ($26 million alone for the bridge at Geyserville) private landowners, and businesses, on construction, erosion control and salmonid habitat restoration (where possible). The work you’ve seen here has cost $$millions, but they have been $$ spent on bandaids. The gravel bars must be managed. They are the source of continuous erosive damage to property and habitat.” It’s unknown who placed the signs, but gravel mining advocates have long used “river management” as another term for gravel mining.

Gore said that the stretch from Alexander Valley Campground to Riverfront Park in Windsor was especially important because it had been mined the most for gravel for more that a century. “And that was such a big political battle 10 [to] 20 years ago,” said Gore. “The focus now is not about battle against each other but how do we work together to manage this resource.”

The river tour comes with a hefty price tag. Anderson estimated that by the end, LandPaths and Russian Riverkeeper will have spent close to $80,000. So far, $60,000 has been spent on the planning, preparation and execution of the tour down the river. Staff time was also accounted for in the cost of the tour. At least six staff members of LandPaths have been dedicated to the descent trips.

Each day, participants enjoyed locally sourced foods, from vegetables to gourmet sausages to goat cheese, wine and much more. Anderson said that the point is to showcase the bounty of the region to highlight the value of the watershed. The catering costs $1,000 to $1,200 each day, said Anderson.

LandPaths and Russian Riverkeeper, both nonprofits, are funded by private donations and private grants. Some of their major supporters are Caryl and Mickey Hart, Kendall Jackson Family Wines, the Nature Conservancy, Sonoma RCD, Redwood Hills Creamery (donated cheese), among others. Volunteers have also helped to keep costs down.

The final leg of the Headwaters-to-Sea Russian River Descent will take place over Oct. 7, 8 and 9, beginning in Forestville and ending in Jenner. Those who choose to will camp overnight in Monte Rio and at Casini Family Campground.

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