A Watershed Moment: Advocates Join Forces to Save the Russian River

After decades of neglect, exploitation, and environmental decline, advocates have joined forces to forge a better future for the Russian River.

It has been a beloved summer destination for generations of Northern California families, and a blue ribbon fishery for steelhead and salmon. It has been mined, diverted, and dammed, tapped for its water and used as a sewer. It has rampaged during torrential winter storms and shrunken to a tepid trickle during drought. And through it all it has remained a central and unifying emblem of Sonoma County. Over the past century, we have loved and ignored it, feared and exploited it. It has been declared moribund, dead even — but it rolls on.

To understand the Russian River of today, you have to understand its previous incarnations. Prior to Euro-American contact, it was, like most of California’s virgin rivers, changeable with the seasons. In winter, it could roar; at high summer, it was often reduced to a gentle stream punctuated by deep, green pools. Stands of ancient redwoods cloaked the banks in its lower reaches, and steep oak uplands gave rise to its headwaters. And of course, it teemed with fish: steelhead trout, coho and king salmon, green and white sturgeon, Pacific lamprey, tule perch, all providing sustenance for the native tribes of the watershed.

With the Gold Rush and the settling of California, the river changed drastically.

Its redwoods were logged to build San Francisco and Oakland. Its benchlands and lower slopes were farmed, first for orchard crops, later for grapes. Its fisheries were exploited, with little if any thought devoted to sustainability. Its bars were mined for aggregate to make concrete, roiling the once pellucid waters with sediment, silting in the gravel and cobble riffles that salmon and steelhead require for successful spawning.

These were the bad times for the river — an era that extended into recent memory. But the river present is not the river past.

The Russian River is showing new signs of life, a renascent vitality, and portents for the future are favorable. We will never regain the river primeval; it will remain a working watershed, overtaxed at times, but it is reasonable to expect that it will be healthier, that its tributaries will be safeguarded, that it will have more fish, and cleaner, clearer water. This transformation is apparent now, the result of dedicated people from differing backgrounds and diverse perspectives working toward a common goal. Collaboration and compromise may be sunk elsewhere, but they’re manifest along the waterway’s serpentine course through Sonoma County.

So here are some stories of the people engaged in shaping the river’s present and forging its future. They don’t always see eye to eye, but the river binds them and all of us together in Sonoma County.

After decades of neglect, exploitation, and environmental decline, advocates have joined forces to forge a better future for the Russian River.
“I’ve become heartened. I’m more than moderately encouraged now – I’m genuinely optimistic.” – Reg Elgin. (Photo by Chris Hardy)

REG ELGIN: Pomo Community Elder

The Pomo people have inhabited the lands that now constitute Sonoma, Lake, Mendocino, Napa, and Marin counties for thousands of years, thriving on the abundant fish, shellfish, game, acorns, tubers, and wild grains. There were 19 bands of Pomo, and the group that now comprises the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Southern Pomos occupied much of the midcourse and lower reaches of the Russian River.

Moreover, they’re still here. The Dry Creek Rancheria band holds several hundred acres of tribal trust land in and around the Alexander Valley, and operates the River Rock Casino. The 1,150 tribal members are actively working to revive the band’s Pomo dialect, and are preserving and passing on community knowledge in a wide range of disciplines, from religious observances and dances to planting and harvesting the sedges and willows traditionally employed in the Pomos’ exquisite basketry.

Restoration of the Russian River and its tributaries is a priority of the band, says community elder Reg Elgin, whose mild demeanor and droll, slow smile belies both a fierce commitment to the interests of his people and a sharp sense of humor.

“When the reservation was first formed in the early part of the 20th Century, there was language in the authorizing documents stating that the tributaries here had enough fish in them to support the tribe,” Elgin says. “It’s been a long time since that’s been the case, obviously. But the river and its tributaries were once major sources of sustenance for us, and we’re trying to bring them back.”

Part of that work involves participation in a coalition that is restoring fish habitat on Dry Creek, which flows heavy year-round with the supply from Lake Sonoma, the region’s largest reservoir northwest of Healdsburg.

The tribe also is working on rehabilitating Rancheria Creek, a small tributary on tribal lands that was once thought bereft of fish because it dried up each year due to agricultural diversions. But biologists found over-summering populations of steelhead in isolated pools deep in the creek’s narrow, shaded gorge. This remnant population of native fish, tribal members realized, could be bolstered with some money, a lot of labor, and creative engineering.

“We got a grant, and we’ve done a lot of work remediating a landslide, planting trees and shrubs, removing old cars and other junk, and we’re going to build a million-gallon tank above the gorge that will hold highly treated effluent,” says Elgin. “During the summer, we’ll be able to trickle that water down the creek, and it should be enough to enhance and sustain the run.”

The tribe also is aggressively removing heavy thickets of arundo, a noxious, bamboo-like invasive plant that flourishes along much of the Russian’s course, sucking up water like a sponge.

“When we’re finished taking out the arundo, it’ll annually put between 50 to 60 million gallons of water back into the river,” says Elgin. “And that’s just for tribal lands. There are more arundo removal projects going on up and down the river, and I think they’ll make a big difference.”

Elgin has seen a lot of ups and downs on the river in his close to eight decades on the planet. In recent years, he says, “I’ve become heartened. I’m more than moderately encouraged now — I’m genuinely optimistic. Like the river, the Pomo people have gotten the short end of the stick a lot of times. But our working relationships with our various partners are very good these days. I think things are turning around for the river.”

After decades of neglect, exploitation, and environmental decline, advocates have joined forces to forge a better future for the Russian River.
“We’ve completely lost touch with the river, and it’s the most important natural system in Sonoma County – James Gore. (Photo by Chris Hardy)

JAMES GORE: 4th District Supervisor, Sonoma County

Organizing advocates of a river that spans 110 miles across two counties, including Mendocino to the north, can seem an impossible task. But if there’s a person innately suited for the role, it’s James Gore, Sonoma County’s 4th District supervisor, representing the longest swath of the rivercourse in Sonoma County. He was born in Healdsburg and raised in the Alexander Valley, and his father was a founding partner in a vineyard management company. He fished and explored miles of the river as a youth; it was where he hung out with his buddies, and where he went to be alone when he needed time to think and dream.

“So many of my best memories involve the river. Jumping off the pontoon diving board at Memorial Beach, fishing for steelhead – I spent hours, whole days on the water with my friends,” Gore says.

“Healdsburg has changed so much since then, it’s still changing, but the river is like a rock, it’s the foundational anchor for the town.

I still live in Healdsburg, and for me, the watershed starts with the first step out my front door.”

The river, Gore likes to say, was Sonoma County’s first road, the first effective means for moving people and goods into, out, and around the county.

“You still see that reflected in our transportation infrastructure.

There are eight roads named ‘River Road’ in the Russian’s watershed. Land transportation routes naturally conformed to the river’s course. People stayed connected to the river and its tributaries.”

But things abruptly changed with the construction of Highway 101, Gore says.

“The freeway bypassed the towns and largely circumvented the river,” he says. “It essentially walled people off from the river, made it possible — inevitable, even — for them to ignore it. People stopped thinking about it, and it just became a source for the water that comes out of the tap.”

The years that followed took a toll on the river at many turns: heavy-handed gravel mining and water diversions, the collapse of salmon and steelhead runs, the helter-skelter straightening, narrowing, and armoring of the river channel and the degradation of water quality.

“We’ve completely lost touch with the river, and it’s the most important natural system in Sonoma County,” Gore says. “We have to acknowledge its significance, its beauty. In a very real sense, the Russian River is to Sonoma County what Lake Tahoe is to the Sierra.

But we need more than bumper stickers that say ‘Keep the Russian River Healthy.’ That isn’t going to cut it.”

In 2016, Gore, who served as assistant chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service during the Obama administration, kicked off the Russian River Confluence, a colloquium of private groups and public agencies that aims to ensure the Russian River regains its regional luster.

“We’re moving this conversation beyond ‘sustainability,’” Gore says. “We can make this river more than just ‘sustainable.’ We don’t have to keep it at status quo, at a relatively low level of productivity. Stakeholders all along the river are working to establish flows that are sufficient for what fish need not just to survive, but thrive. We’re working to establish setback levees in certain reaches so the river has room to meander during high water events, and that’s going to result in open space that can function as both recreational land and wildlife habitat. We’re working on securing new access points. We’re going to bring the river back, and not just to a better state. We’re going to bring it back to the people of Sonoma County.”

After decades of neglect, exploitation, and environmental decline, advocates have joined forces to forge a better future for the Russian River.
“To me, as a painter, human beings are part of the composition, they’re things on the beach, like the water and sand and trees.” – Mary Robertson (Photo by Chris Hardy)

MARY ROBERTSON: Guerneville Artist

Just west of Guerneville, the Russian River fans out across a riffle below the wood and stone home of Mary and Frank Robertson. The water is low and appears both translucent and emerald green, mirroring the dark hues of steep blackberry- and redwood-cloaked banks. Between them, a common merganser hen, her rust-red crest erect with concern, rides herd on a clutch of ducklings. No people are visible. Painter Mary Robertson has looked at this view, in one form or another, for more than 40 years.

Her gaze has fueled her life’s work as an artist, reflecting the Russian River and the people who visit it. Her canvases are small but powerful, capturing both the natural splendor of the river and the complexity and ambiguity of its habitués. Displayed in the Bay Area and beyond, her works have presented the Russian River to a global audience.

“I love this river,” Robertson says, “and when I first came up here, I was an activist. I hiked all these hills — partly for enjoyment, but also to cruise timber harvest plans. I showed up at all the (state Department of Forestry) meetings. Everybody knows how unstable these hills are, how excessive logging destroys this watershed.”

Her proudest moment as an activist, Robertson recalls, occurred when she hiked a proposed timber harvest site and noticed trees were leaning like jackstraws toward Highway 116.

“It was an active landslide that the forester hadn’t even noticed,” Robertson says. “So we took photos, went to CDF, and got the plan changed.”

Ultimately, Robertson had to pull back from her activism. The fight became too burdensome emotionally, and besides, she says, “I really had to make a living. I had to paint.”

Her oeuvre has earned her wide praise in the art world and acclaim from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She has been compared to such luminaries as Wayne Thiebaud, whom she knew, and Thomas Eakins.

As Kenneth Baker, the art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle put it in one review, “… Though her images are sunlit and her colors sweet, Robertson’s vision is not falsely cheerful. People in her pictures often are depicted alone against stretches of water and shore, leading us to wonder whether they are alone as they appear…” That assessment rings true for Robertson.

“I don’t try to be cheerful,” she says. “If your paintings are felt, they show it.

To me, as a painter, human beings are part of the composition, they’re things on the beach, like the water and sand and trees.”

Her river paintings somehow subsume all elements, human and natural, into a larger whole, one that speaks first and foremost of place.

”It’s just the greenest, most beautiful place in the world,” says Robertson.

‘So it influences every aspect of your life. … There’s always this sound of water flowing over rocks. We’re hearing the river as well as seeing it.”

She has had to put down her brush in recent months due to illness, but she is recovering her strength and plans to take up again with her oils and watercolors soon. Recently, in her studio, she contemplated a completed study of several canoes pulled up on a Russian River beach. She mentioned her mentor, famed printmaker and painter Gordon Cook.

“Gordon once said that I had a marvelous feel for algae,” Robertson says with a faint smile. “I appreciated that.”

After decades of neglect, exploitation, and environmental decline, advocates have joined forces to forge a better future for the Russian River.

SEAN WHITE: Former Director of the Russian River Flood Control and Water Conservation Improvement District

Sean White led the way through heavy stands of mugwort and willow under the Highway 175 bridge outside Hopland. Quail called from the undergrowth and where the path ended at the water’s edge, the river was a narrow ribbon of green silk flowing between wooded banks.

It’s a beautiful and bucolic spot, but to White, the appearances aren’t necessarily encouraging. “Fifteen ago, you could stand at this point and see the bottom of the river in detail,” he says. “The water was crystal clear.”

White was the director of the Russian River Flood Control and Water Conservation Improvement District until 2015, and currently serves as the director of water and sewer for the City of Ukiah. He is an avid fishermen and kayaker, and his outings on the upper river have honed his understanding of its changing hydrology and ecology.

As White sees it, the main problem bedeviling water quality in this stretch of the Russian is Lake Mendocino, specifically Coyote Valley Dam at its mouth.

“There’s a lot of silt in the lake, and the dam is an old and simple design,” says White. “Warm Springs Dam at Lake Sonoma has several ports – you can release water from various levels along the dam. But Coyote Valley Dam only has one port — right at the bottom, where all the sediment is, and silt is just spewed into the river with the releases.

We could solve most of our sedimentation problems in this reach of the river by retrofitting the dam with multiple ports.”

White has also become an evangelist for a holistic, two-county approach to managing the various demands on the river, instead of the piecemeal system that lumps its resources into an aggregation of legal rights. He has even advised Ukiah to forgo a small contract for river water — a near heretical move in the water-hungry West — noting that the city has far more claim to water than it uses in a year. Not everyone in Ukiah is convinced. But White, a supporter of Supervisor Gore’s efforts with the Russian River Confluence, is unapologetic.

In 2016, “confluence members floated the Russian from its headwaters to the ocean,” recalls White. “I know the river well, but I’d never paddled the whole thing in one trip, and it really confirmed my sense that we need a generational plan that encompasses the entire watershed. And more than that, I think it’s inevitable. We’re heading that way, and I don’t think we’re going back.”

After decades of neglect, exploitation, and environmental decline, advocates have joined forces to forge a better future for the Russian River.

CRAIG ANDERSON: Co-Founder LandPaths

A fifth-generation Californian, Craig Anderson was concerned about protecting the signature landscapes of the Golden State at an early age, an interest that led to graduate studies in ecology at UC Berkeley. But his early work convinced him wildland preservation and restoration depended on getting people to care about the land.

“And the best way to do that is to get them on the land,” says Anderson, a vigorous, animated man in his mid-fifties who surfs and still enjoys skateboarding. “When you establish those bonds, stewardship follows.”

Anderson co-founded Santa Rosa-based LandPaths in 1996. Its mission was and remains simple: fostering connections between people and the landscapes of Sonoma County. Docents and guides lead outings through the county’s open spaces, promote volunteer wildlife habitat projects, tend a large community garden in Roseland, and manage extensive preserves, including a holding of redwoods near the lower Russian River and a forested tract on Fitch Mountain overlooking the river in Healdsburg.

“The Russian River is integral to everything we do,” says Anderson. “It defines our landscape, from the ridgetops to the lowest elevation of the watercourse, from its headwaters to the sea. We interact with the river at every elevation and at every point.”

By the same token, says Anderson, the river’s problems can’t be attributed to any single cause. No overarching villain exists. We all contribute to its ills and its health.

“It’s not just aggregate mining, or diversions for cities or vineyards, or sedimentation. It’s all those things. There used to be deep pools along the river that were formed from cold water seeping up. Hundreds of steelhead would over-summer in them. We’ve lost that, but it’s too easy to say ‘Oh, the vineyards did it.’ There are a lot of reasons, and they all reinforce each other. So we have to approach possible solutions in a way that addresses the whole watershed and all stakeholders, solutions that build on each other.”

The good news, says Anderson, is that rivers are resilient systems. With help, the Russian will bounce back.

“And we are getting serious about removing the insults,” he says. “It can be as dramatic as stopping gravel mining, or as subtle as planting willow whips in the bars and along the banks. We’re finally addressing flows in a serious way. We’re thinking of setback levees and meander belts. I think the Russian River of the future is going to be a much richer, healthier, more biodiverse system.”

The payoffs will go to nature and the people who engage with it, Anderson says.

“I see that in the kids I work with every day,” he says. “Initially, they have no real sense of what’s going on with the land because no one has really taken them out on it before. When they see how a forest is an interconnected web of everything from the bacteria in the duff to a redwood tree, when they see that a river is an aquatic analogue of the same thing, they become engaged. The more they learn, the more they care.”

After decades of neglect, exploitation, and environmental decline, advocates have joined forces to forge a better future for the Russian River.
Russian River Stewards: James Gore Reg Elgin Dan Poirier

DAVID MANNING: Environmental Resources Manager for the Sonoma County Water Agency

Just as the Russian River of old would be unrecognizable to most of us, its largest tributary, Dry Creek, has undergone vast changes over the decades.

A hundred years ago, the meandering creek took up the entire Dry Creek Valley, says David Manning, environmental resources manager for the Sonoma County Water Agency, which supplies Russian River drinking water to 600,000 people in Sonoma and northern Marin counties. “And as its name indicates, it had perennial flows — it was dry much of the year. But there were underflows back then that created deep pools that served as refuges for over-summering fish.”

The creek was harnessed for human needs starting at least 150 years ago, when orchards and vineyards constricted it to a narrow defile. Later, gravel mining cut off the creek from its historic flood plain. When the Warm Springs Dam was finished in the early 1980s — one of the last major dams erected in California — it further upended historic conditions, cutting off miles of spawning territory for steelhead and salmon while providing, clear, cold, and high-volume flows from the reservoir year-round.

In the past decade, with wild steelhead and salmon stocks still in decline, Dry Creek has been a focal point and laboratory for an ambitious publicprivate effort to bolster fish habitat — a $20 million effort to date to redress some of the man-made problems of the river system. It involves various local, state, and federal agencies, but its success is largely dependent on the good will of the valley’s grape growers.

“With 99 percent of the Dry Creek Valley in private hands, restoring healthy populations of salmon and steelhead requires active participation of the landowners,” says Manning, who oversees the project. “We’re lucky the response has been so positive.”

The work involves placing redwood stumps and logs in the creek and carving out side channels that have been lost over decades of human intervention. Up to 70 percent of the Dry Creek Valley’s property owners have bought into the plan, says Manning. About 2 miles of the creek have been rehabilitated to date, and the final number could be double that.

“We need clean gravel for returning fish to spawn on, lots of vegetation along the creek to cool the water, and enough structure and sheltered side channels to provide the nooks and crannies young fish need to hide, rest, and feed,” Manning says. “We’re attacking it in bite-sized pieces, but we’re making real progress.”

The creek already is responding in the best possible way. Thousands of mature king salmon and hundreds of endangered coho are returning to the creek, along with robust runs of steelhead.

“And they’re not just going to the hatchery,” Manning says. “There are some good spawning riffles now, and we’re seeing a lot of redds (nests created by spawning fish) right in the creek. There’s a lot we can do to rehabilitate the Russian River, but under any scenario, Dry Creek is going to be the major engine for fish restoration.”

After decades of neglect, exploitation, and environmental decline, advocates have joined forces to forge a better future for the Russian River.
Russian River steward and fisherman Bruce McDonnell

BRUCE MACDONELL: Project Manager of the Russian River Wild Steelhead Society

Bruce MacDonell’s roots in the lower Russian River go back to his great-grandparents, who bought the Guerneville property where he’s lived since 1986. “I’ve played on and fished this river since Iwas a little kid,” he says. “It’s always been a central part of my life.”

Like many residents of the lower river, MacDonell is somewhat fishbesotted. He is the project manager of the Russian River Wild Steelhead Society, an organization devoted to reviving the fortunes of the Russian River’s once prolific salmonid.

Celebrated for their size, the wild steelhead were imported to New Zealand more than a century ago, where their descendants comprise one of the finest sea-run trout fisheries in the world. In their natal river, things are far grimmer. While as many as 60,000 wild steelhead ran up the Russian River annually through the 1950s, numbers have dropped by more than 90 percent.

“We don’t have any illusions,” MacDonell says. “There’s no silver bullet for bolstering steelhead populations. The idea that we’ll someday have huge numbers of wild steelhead on the river again is probably unrealistic.

No matter how you look at things, the hatcheries will have to play a role in boosting fish populations. But we can manage things better — both in the hatcheries and in the watershed.”

MacDonell is enthused about advances in remote hatchery technology that should allow for a more discerning and successful efforts to prop up the wild runs. “By collecting fish from each little creek and then incubating their eggs in the same creeks, we hatch fish that are more like truly wild fish. They are likely to be tougher, more resilient, and better able to survive and return to spawn,” he says.

MacDonell also is heartened by extensive, multimillion-dollar fish habitat work now underway on Dry Creek, and he says that the Austin Creek watershed on the lower river is both holding its own and would benefit from restoration projects.

“A lot of work has been done on Dry Creek to bring coho salmon back, and they’re having some significant success,” says MacDonell. “Coho are more sensitive than steelhead, so anything that benefits them will also benefit steelhead.”

The future of the river’s once-famed runs depends on adequate flows in the summer and early fall, he says, and riparian vegetation to cool the water and provide shade.

“The great thing about steelhead is that they have the ability to rebound,” says MacDonell. “If we had three more winters [like 2016-2017], for example, they’d skyrocket. We know how to bring them back. We just need the will to do it.”

After decades of neglect, exploitation, and environmental decline, advocates have joined forces to forge a better future for the Russian River.
“The lower Russian River was always central to Kashaya Pomo life, and it remains central to my life.” (Photo by Erik Castro)

SUKI WATERS: Founder Living Classrooms Project

The estuary of the Russian River is home for Suki Waters, just as it was home for generations of her ancestors.

“I went to the one-room school house in Jenner until it closed,” says Waters. “My Uncle Pio was the last farmer to cultivate Penny Island. My great-great-grandmother was born in the Kashaya Pomo village at Goat Rock, and was on the matriarch’s council. The lower Russian River was always central to Kashaya Pomo life, and it remains central to my life.”

Waters grew up along the river and the surrounding headlands, beaches, and forests, often helping her relatives forage for fish, shellfish, and edible plants.

“We caught cabezon and gathered abalone,” Waters recalled. “My uncle grew root crops and greens, and raised chickens and hogs. There were still good salmon and steelhead runs back then. The river provided for us.”

And the river still provides. Waters is the owner of WaterTreks Ecotours, a kayak rental and outfitting company that operates along the lower river.

Revenue from the business supports her other big venture, the Living Classrooms Project, a program that introduces kids to the Russian River’s ecosystems and native fauna and flora.

“Our Living Classrooms Project is particularly important for creating the next generation of advocates and guardians, the people who will continue to do the hard work of protecting the river,” Waters says. “Plus, I’m inspired by their enthusiasm. I love teaching them.”

Waters participates in two citizen watch groups monitoring wildlife and water quality along the Sonoma Coast, and she belongs to Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, a nonprofit organization that helps manage and interpret numerous State Parks sites along the coast and lower river.

She also serves as an unofficial guardian of the large harbor seal rookery at the river’s mouth.

“Harbor seals need to spend a lot of their time resting to maintain health, and they become extremely stressed if they’re disturbed by human beings or dogs,” Waters said. “I’m pretty proud of the fact that my clients never disturb the seals, and even advise other paddlers about avoiding them. But it really bothers me when I see other people approaching or even harassing them. They’re so vulnerable.”

Waters’ role as an environmental steward has exposed to her to the river’s gravest losses. During her childhood, she recalls, there was more of everything: salmon, crabs, the kelp that sustains a wide array of marine life, from abalone to rockfish.

“And it’s not that there are just fewer fish,” she says. “They’re smaller. I remember catching really big cabezon, and it was common to catch ling cod 3 feet long. And the eels (lampreys) just swarmed up the river. That drove the seals and sea lions crazy — they love to eat them.”

But the lower Russian is still a river of riches. Almost 400 harbor seals now inhabit the rookery, seabirds and waterfowl remain abundant, and big schools of anchovies congregate near the mouth, drawing dolphins and whales.

“I’ve seen humpback and gray whales feeding 30 feet from the beach,” Waters says, “and right now, the shad are running up the river. You’re paddling along, the water is flat and calm, and then these big, silver fish start jumping out of the water. It’s incredibly beautiful.”