Case Study California: Russian River Watershed
Water Resource Strategies and Information Needs in Response to Extreme Weather/Climate Events
Water Trends
The 1 1 0-mile long Russian River runs from
Mendocino County to the Pacific Ocean in
Sonoma County. This region typically has
warm, dry summers and cool, wet winters, in
which highly variable precipitation results in
rapid, brief, and dramatic runoff. More than
93% of rainfall occurs in winter, so maximizing
storage for yearlong water supply is a priority.
In the past 60 years, 34 of 39 floods were
related to a meteorological phenomena termed
"atmospheric rivers." These narrow bands, a
few hundred kilometers wide and two thousand
kilometers or more long, transport water vapor
from the tropics toward the poles. Projected
increases in rainfall frequency and intensity
associated with atmospheric rivers increases
flood risk.
In recent decades, this region has had more
widespread drought because of precipita-
tion deficits and higher temperatures. This is
accompanied by reduced snow cover, ear-
lier snow-melt run-off, reduced streamflow
and reservoir levels, and drier soils. Periods
of surface water decline often result in
higher groundwater use, stressing both
systems. Because of the number of extreme
dry years, the National Integrated Drought
Information System (NIDIS) has included this
area as a pilot study for a drought early
warning system for better-informed and
well-timed decisions to reduce impacts
and costs.
Governing Structures
SCWA provides naturally filtered drinking
water to 600,000 people, as well as flood
protection and wastewater services. The US ACE
and SCWA operate Coyote Valley and Warm
Springs Dams in the Russian River Watershed
where US ACE is responsible for flood control
operations, while SCWA is responsible for
water supply operations. Local communities such
as the City of Santa Rosa manage their own
stormwater and wastewater systems.
The Story in Brief
California's Russian River watershed has a history of variable weather, but recent events reveal an
emerging pattern that is more erratic and unpredictable. The 2006 New Year's Day flood, the
2007-2009 drought, and an unusually intense period of frosts in spring 2008 are examples of this
pattern. Such cascading weather-driven events require management of both flood risk and water
supply in balance with environmental needs, and they illuminate the interdependent challenges water
resource managers face.
2006 New Year's Day Flood
Exceptionally heavy rains hit northern California from December 26, 2005, to January 3, 2006. The Russian River rose
above flood stage at all Sonoma County gauge stations. At Guerneville, the hardest-hit town, the river crested more
than ten feet above its 32-foot flood stage. The city of Santa Rosa saw near-record rainfall totaling 17.6 inches.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
declared a major disaster. More than 100 roadways were
blocked because of flooding and landslides. Some 2,1 00
business and residential properties were inundated and
50,000 residents were without power. Sonoma County
business and residential damages were estimated at
$1 04 million.
In the Laguna de Santa Rosa wetlands, designed to
protect Santa Rosa and surrounding areas, record-peak
flows resulted in severe flooding, overbanking, erosion,
and sedimentation. Local stormwater systems were
overwhelmed, flooding streets and buildings.
Meanwhile, the Laguna Wastewater Treatment Plant
and its storage ponds that hold recycled water flooded,
Structural damage to roadways limited access for plant
"We use the [Russian River] as a natural conveyance
system and natural filtration system of sands and
gravels for water withdrawal. We are very much
reliant on the natural environmental system. This
has a lot of consequences [related to] managing
that system for extreme events."
Jay Jasperse, Chief Engineer
Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA)
causing release of partially treated wastewater,
personnel during recovery operations.
Utility and Community Response
The US Army Corps of Engineers (US ACE) and the Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) cooperate in managing
Warm Springs Dam on Lake Sonoma and Coyote Valley Dam on Lake Mendocino. Their combined efforts, in concert
with information provided by NOAAs California/Nevada River Forecast Center (CN RFC), controlled releases to
avoid worse flooding. US ACE and SCWA had to weigh reserving "freeboard" capacity to contain potentially
more rain against using that capacity to maintain storage for adequate supply during periods of low rainfall. Flood
management decisions are time-sensitive, and improved information for forecasting and modeling is needed to aid
multiple types of decision making, including emergency operations. Recent work by NOAA on forcasting atmo-
spheric rivers holds promise for local decision makers.
At the Laguna plant, operated by the City of Santa Rosa, managers installed a system to monitor water flow during
future wet-weather events, and installed a combined heat and power system to provide emergency power as well
as 30% of the plant's regular energy needs. SCWA instituted a stream maintenance program that tries to balance
the competing goals of reduced flood risk with enhanced riparian and instream habitats.
Drought and Frost of 2007-2009
A three-year drought hit on the heels of the 2006 flood, affecting Sonoma County's water environment, economy, and
water supply. Surface water and groundwater recharge significantly declined. Lake Mendocino, a major water
reservoir, was dangerously close to drying up. To preserve water supplies, the State Water Resources Control Board
(SWRCB) allowed reduced releases from the lake below minimum in-stream flow requirements. Local water rationing of
up to 50% also was imposed.
A series of workshops focusing on extreme events and water resources, co-sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration (NOAA), US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA), Water Environment Research Foundation (WERF), Water
Research Foundation (WaterRF), Concurrent Technologies Corporation (CTC), and NOBLIS.

In spring 2008, unusually intense frosts occurred during the drought. The region's world-renowned vineyards and
wine-making industry dominate the local economy. While wine grapes are generally a low water-use crop, during freezes,
one way to protect new spring growth from frost and potential crop loss is by spraying water on the vines, coating them
with an ice shield. The combination of drought and repeated frosts created high immediate water demands.
River flows, typically 500 - 1000 cfs or more, were already extremely low due to dry conditions. When grape
growers sprayed vineyards to prevent damage, flow dropped to 1 68 cfs. NOAA's National Marine Fisheries
Service (NMFS) discovered dead juvenile coho and steelhead trout in the Russian River and one of its tributaries.
The SWRCB, already encouraging water conservation efforts, responded with regulations to restrict and govern water
use for frost protection. Salmon fishermen endured canceled and shortened seasons between 2008 and 2010. Tensions
between conservationists and the grape industry flared and the agricultural community challenged the legality of these
regulations. (In September 201 2, the court found in favor of the grape growers and set aside the frost regulations.)
Utility and Community Response
SCWA, the NMFS, and others examined frost protection practices and found that limited prediction capabilities and lack
of coordination between grape growers and the reservoir releases were factors in the extreme
drawdown. As a result, NOAA began working with SCWA to improve frost event forecasting,
supporting SCWAs efforts to coordinate with grape growers. SCWA also worked with the USGS
to increase the number of stream gauges on the Russian River to improve the monitoring network
to support reservoir operations. In Mendocino County, the Russian River Flood Control and Water
Conservation Improvement District led efforts with its grape growers to significantly reduce water
diversion from the river during frosts by constructing storage ponds for frost protection.
These ongoing efforts have improved the use of forecasting tools, coordination procedures, and
water management projects so that impacts from frosts are much less than in the past. In addition,
NOAA forecasting tools are expected to improve summer heatwave predictions, thus helping
growers coordinate irrigation schedules up to 72 hours in advance. Meanwhile, recognizing that
"you can't do it alone," SCWA engaged in a variety 
of partnerships including the Sonoma-Marin Saving
Water Partnership. Ten utilities have committed to
provide a sustained level of funding to implement
best management practices to conserve water while
focusing on programs that benefit the region.
Lessons Learned
	Develop implications of scenarios,
including low-probability events.
	Identify opportunities to address
multiple challenges through integrated
programs and diverse strategies that
contribute to sustainability.
	Look at the entire watershed to
identify the greatest benefits for the
lowest cost.
	Develop partnerships to help
leverage resources, coordinate
activities, and incorporate innova-
tive approaches that result in faster
progress and collective learning.
	Form partnerships with other
stakeholders, including regulatory
|P>	agencies: work on
problems ahead
'	of regulation
instead of waiting
for a one-size-fhs-
all route.

(Top/Middle) Frosts in the middle of severe drought in 2008
undermined local water management efforts when grape growers
used large quantities of water to coat grapes with protective
ice. (Bottom) Atmospheric rivers are narrow bands transporting
columns of water vapor that result in extreme rainfall.
 t i
Managing for multiple objectives lies at the heart
of integrated water resource management and
guides SCWAs innovative approaches for supply
management. Groundwater banking and aquifer
storage systems during times of high precipitation
are being explored to control flooding. Supply is
being extended further by reusing treated waste-
water for agriculture and urban landscaping,
stemming freshwater withdrawals.
Wastewater treatment plants achieve multiple objec-
tives by discharging in a way that supplements water
supply, protects water quality, and generates energy.
The Laguria Wastewater Treatment Plant conveys about
two-thirds of its treated wastewater to the Geyser
Project, where it is used to recharge the geyser steam-
field to generate 100 MW of thermal energy daily.
Partners, such as the non-profit Pepperwood Preserve, are exploring science-based conservation to protect biodiversity
and link functioning ecological landscapes using conservation easements and protected watershed areas. Scientific
collaboratives are participating in a regional integrated monitoring strategy to advance understanding of the
impacts of climate change on terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. In early 201 2, SCWAs Board of Directors
established the Independent Science Review Panel to promote science-based management and policies.
SCWA also is leading collaborative stakeholder-driven groundwater management programs in two basins.
Looking Forward
Communities in the Russian River Watershed have historically nurtured a collaborative approach for solving complex
problems. Their increasingly sophisticated understanding enables an integrated resource management approach.
Water and natural resource managers, scientists, and elected officials are overcoming uncertainty in climate
projections by investing in the monitoring, research, tools, and dialogue needed to build resilient responses to
the impacts of a changing climate.
To learn more about how the water sector is responding to extremes, visit:
Useful Tools and Resources
	NOAA NWS California/Nevada
River Forecast Center (http://www. - hydrologic and
meteorological data
	USGS GSFLOW (http://water. nrp/g wsoft ware / gsflow/
gsflow.html) - coupled groundwater
and surface-water flow simulation
	CocoRahs (http://www.cocorahs.
org/) - precipitation mapping
	SCWA and USGS integrated flood
control/groundwater recharge
studies (
	NOAA Hydrometeorological Testbeds
( - information and
prototype solutions
	Golden Gate Bridge long-term, sea-
level rise data (http://tidesonline.
Information Needs
Better regional weather forecasting
and decision support tools to support
operational and emergency
planning decisions
Additional flow monitoring data and
use of new technologies; e.g., light
detection and ranging (LIDAR), radar,
collaborative monitoring
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