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Russian River Tales (August 16, 2000)

Depending on how you approach the matter, Joan Vilms, the spry, 50-something champion of the Russian River, is the sort of person you like despite yourself, or else have a hard time getting along with, best intentions notwithstanding.

Vilms is a woman whose stature, grooming, and manner suggest seriousness of purpose. She has straight, pepper-gray hair, a compact frame that is neither stout not slender, and a line of social attack that is neither particularly artful, nor entirely discourteous. “What happened?” she snaps, by way of introductory comment.

I'm late. I've kept her waiting at the Steelhead Beach parking lot half an hour beyond the planned meeting time for our afternoon kayaking expedition along the Russian River. She looks down at my leather, brass-buckled shoes, up my cotton bluejeans, and along my cotton flannel shirt in the disapproving manner of a mother scanning a child smeared with jelly. “Didn't you bring kayaking clothes?” she asks.

I hadn't brought them, even though I'd known we would spend three hours inspecting ecological details along a calmish stretch of the mid-Russian River. After listening to me mumble about my clothes, and hearing me haltingly admit I barely know how to operate a kayak, Vilms lets her voice fade to gentleness. “Well, I've got some nylon pants that will probably fit you. Would you like to borrow some neoprene booties? And a hat. You don't want to get sunburned, do you?” 

As the oft-heard voice of Friends of the Russian River, a coalition of Sonoma County environmental groups, Vilms and her curmudgeon with-a-heart-of-gold manner are the perfect companion to this troubled stream, which itself serves as a parable for urban Northern California's tortured relationship with its incomparable natural surroundings.

Though the Russian is not the kind of rapids-shooting river worshipped by rafting aficionados, this beautiful, meandering, once-great trout-and salmon-spawning ground is the site of more political turbulence than perhaps any similar-sized body of water in California. There are fights over who will handle millions of dollars in federal funds to restore salmon and steelhead habitat.

There are battles between vintners and environmentalists over water use and care of the river's watershed and riparian areas. 

Developers and environmentalists square off over planning laws.

Fishermen, environmentalists, tourism entrepreneurs, local politicians, and county bureaucrats feud over water diversion. 

And if all sides in these complicated disputes take care to use language favoring the preservation of natural resources, vitriol often takes the day. “Human beings aren't my favorite species,” muses Vilms, a frequent warrior in these clashes. 

It almost had to come to this.

Since the era of John Muir, the dominant environmental belief system in America and, particularly, Northern California has held the view that the natural world is precious and should be preserved. Under that belief system, it's wrong to foul the environment or wipe out its species and ecosystems; over time, laws and bureaucracies, including the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Environmental Protection Agency, were created to prevent such depredation. But during the quarter-century since most of these changes went into effect, we really haven't had to give them much practical thought. We played with our kids in the backyard, drove to the hills on the weekends, and recycled; if we were particularly sensitive to the environment, we decorated with native plants and put solar cells on our roofs.

But now, in what may be a harbinger of environmental conflict coming to the rest of the state and nation, Sonoma County and other high-growth areas of California are finally colliding with the full force and high cost of what had, until recently, been distant environmental laws.”

This summer, in a first-of-its-kind dispute, Sonoma County water officials had to wage a fierce Washington lobbying battle with federal wildlife officials to raise the level of the Russian River so water could be pumped to nearby cities and towns. Elsewhere in the state the Endangered Species Act required the Central Valley Project, which sends Sacramento River water to southern counties, including Los Angeles, to cut back on water deliveries to help preserve Chinook salmon. Last month, a court delayed regulators’ plan to further cut Sacramento River water deliveries to protect a fish called the Sacramento splittail.

During the coming months and years, measures created to preserve the environment will likely require more and more people to abandon the thought of owning houses and cars, and the possibility of realizing the California dream of a countrified city life. And those people might — just might — have to abandon their summertime getaways along the banks of the Russian River, because there’s a possibility, as yet unexamined, that environmental law could require the river to go dry during the summer for the first time in a century.

Finding people who'll talk about the troubles of the Russian River is not difficult. A dozen Sonoma County advocacy groups are, in one way or another, concerned with the river. Many businesses depend on the river for survival. Farm groups and other water-using associations spend their days fretting about the Russian. Governments of all stripes seem to deliberate constantly about it. As I looked at the complicated nexus of law and policy surrounding the river, I talked to environmental activists, politicians, state, federal, and local water officials, a local builder, and ordinary Sonoma County residents.

But before I wrote anything about the river, I also wanted to spend time with it, and Vilms' offer to show me its problems seemed fortuitous.

After she provides me with a proper river-touring uniform — floppy adventurer's hat, slippery nylon running pants, a pair of nifty, never-used wet-suit booties — we hoist two plastic kayaks from the top of her van. Vilms gives me the larger craft, even though it's the better of the two and the one she's used to. 

“It's more stable,” she says. “You'll like it better.” 

As I chop and wag upstream behind Vilms' smooth, powerful strokes, the river shoots through what is essentially a suburban and farmland melange, but the snarl of bushes, trees, and vines along the bank makes it feel like we're miles from nowhere. Soon the water spreads out over a gravel bar; we get out, drag our kayaks, then paddle on, and, after half an hour, reach our first landmark, the Sonoma County Water Agency's inflatable bladder dam, 10 miles northwest of Santa Rosa, upstream from Guerneville, the focus of a battle between the Sonoma County government, which wants to extract more water from the river to serve growth, and environmental agencies that protect fish.

Made of black rubber and about the size of a 16-wheel tractor trailer, the dam looks like a symmetrical whale. Water spills over the top in a two-inch-thick curtain the width of the river. Behind it, the water's backed up into a small lake. The dam is used in the summer to raise the level of the Russian River and force water into perforated collector tubes that are buried upstream, along the banks of the river. By sucking water underground, through several feet of riverbed mud and gravel, the Water; Agency is able to cheaply filter Russian River water for household use.

Development is exploding in Sonoma County, and the Sonoma County Water Agency rightly predicts it will not slow soon. So the agency has proposed to increase the amount of water it draws from the river each year by one-third, to the general wrath of environmentalists. (Earlier this year, for example, the legendary environmentalist David Brower resigned from the Sierra Club board of directors to protest what he believed was his colleagues' insufficient resistance to plans to draw more water from the Russian River.) 

But the wrath of environmentalists and the pure power of the Endangered Species Act are entirely different things. Environmentalists speak loudly. The Endangered Species Act carries a huge stick. 

To keep from taking a stick to the forehead, Sonoma County has had to show that its rubber dam doesn't harm steelhead trout. This year, for example, the county had to obtain a permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service to erect the decade-old dam, and the permit seemed important enough for the Water Agency's director to conduct the equivalent of a bureaucratic blitzkrieg, with agency officials calling and sending shrill memos to members of the California congressional delegation. “If we cannot raise the rubber dam in the middle of the Russian River, our ability to satisfy the current water demands of this region will be reduced to a point that the public health and safety within our region will be affected,” the Water Agency's chief wrote in a memo sent to US Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, as well as other politicians.

The agency got its permit, and the tone set by its lobbying campaign, in which enforcers of federal environmental laws were portrayed as being more sensitive to the needs of fish than those of human beings, may be used in Endangered Species Act battles to come, local political observers say. But the battle of the bladder dam is over, at least for this year.

Vilms and I portage our kayaks around the dam, then ease them into the smooth, still water on the other side, propelling ourselves toward the towering suction devices that draw Sonoma County's drinking water from the river. I'd kayaked only twice before, and not for a long time, so I'd forgotten how stealthy and silky it feels to rhythmically dip your left paddle edge, then your right paddle edge, then glide. I find myself drifting toward a log at the side of the river, where a tortoise and a duck are resting near each other. As I near, the ducks look at me. Vilms’ voice pierces the air.

“Paddle away! Paddle away! Paddle away! Don’t startle them!” she hisses.

I do the best I can, but the damage is done. The duck slips off the log, and swims away.

“I’m sorry, but one of my absolute rules is to enter and leave the wilderness without disturbing its inhabitants,” Vilms says in a tone that cannot be described as apologetic.

We round a bend and hear a dull hum, the sound of the suction towers. From above ground, the towers resemble miniature air traffic control towers, but their business is mostly subterranean; they suck water through acres of sand and muck at the bottom of the river and into perforated pipes, a process that mimics nature’s method for filtering water, and avoids having to run the water through a traditional cleaning plant.

These towers play a key role in a possible scenario in which the Russian River runs dry during the summer months, an occasion that would have the same drama as a Sonoma County tsunami. The summer flows of the Russian River have, over the years, spawned a tourism economy that includes hotels, canoe rental companies, restaurants, and the host of businesses attending to them.

In January, environmentalists filed a lawsuit alleging that a 92-year-old hydroelectric project that diverts water from Mendocino County’s Eel River and into the Russian River during the summer has illegally decimated steelhead and salmon populations. Closing the Potter Valley Project, owned by the Pacific Gas & Electric Company, would radically alter the Russian River and the lives of tens of thousands of people. 

Built in 1908 and consisting of two dams and a mile-long tunnel, the project provides extremely cheap water to the Sonoma County Water Agency, which sells it for less than $3 an acre-foot, or around one-hundreth of the price paid for water from the Colorado River. 

Thanks to the tunnel we can kayak, rather than walk, on the Russian River in July. But the Potter Valley tunnel has over the years diverted so much water from the Eel River that the coho salmon and steelhead trout populations there have been nearly eliminated. The lawsuit, supported by commercial fishermen and Indian tribes, says the diversion must be stopped. Using the Russian River as an artificial summertime pipeline for Eel River water has created a bastardized balance that, environmentalists say, is bad for fish and bad for the river.

In an ironic twist, then, it is possible, if by no means certain, that growing development pressures may contribute to a scenario in which Eel River water is no longer diverted to the Russian River during the summer, and the Russian River therefore goes dry, as it did before the Potter Valley Project was built. The development that environmentalists often consider their greatest enemy could, then, grant them their fondest wish.

During the next two years, federal and state officials will require the Sonoma County Water Agency to re-examine the way it filters water drawn from the Russian River. New federal laws require that Sonoma County provide scientific proof that its river-bottom system removes a microbe called cryptosporidium. The microbe, which causes watery diarrhea, headache, abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, and low-grade fever lasting around two weeks, can be deadly for people with weak immune systems. Already, the US Environmental Protection Agency has refused to certify Caspar, Wyoming, one of the few municipalities to use a system like the one on the Russian River, as adequately removing cryptosporidium.

If research fails to prove that the system can remove “crypto,” the Sonoma County Water Agency will need to consider options that could include running water directly from Mendocino County through a pipe, rather than through the bed of the Russian River. This could change Russian River water flows dramatically, returning them to levels not seen since the early 1900s, when the river usually ran dry in the summer. 

Were this drastic change to occur, of course, rafting companies, bed-and breakfast owners, and all the many other merchants dependent on the summer tourists who come to the river would be outraged. But the fact is that politically, Sonoma County is the Vermont of California. Here, environmentalists hold more clout than business owners do. This is not a belief; it is a fact borne out over numerous Russian River environmental battles. In political terms, the only thing that keeps the Russian River rolling in the summertime is the fact that that's the cheapest, most efficient way for the Water Agency to obtain water. 

If cryptosporidium were to change the economics of Sonoma County water delivery, it could change everything to do with the river, including the huge water suction devices planted in an eddy a few yards off the river's bank, about 100 feet ahead of us. The agency's pumping towers stand steadfast as we pass them, droning unperturbed like hangar-sized refrigerators. “It’s kind of nice that they're on a bend,” Vilms says, noting the towers' odd unobtrusiveness, given their wilderness setting. “You don't really hear them until you're really close.” 

We paddle on, the drone fades, and Vilms notices a clump of scarlet monkey flowers, dime-sized and bright as rubies.

Although possible tectonic policy shifts could affect the river's ecology, the pressures most visible from the river are the banal, seemingly insignificant ones. As Sonoma County land and resources become more precious, it seems everybody wants a piece of the river.

Vilms points left toward the riverbank — which has up to now been a verdant tangle of trees, vines, bushes and tall grass — to a stretch 200 yards long that looks as if someone had spent a few weeks using a backhoe to look for a lost contact lens. “You see those grapevines that go almost up to the side of the bank? They cause those washouts,” says Vilms.

Sure enough, the riverbank is decimated, and its appearance gives every indication that it will erode even further now that the old riparian matrix of tree roots and ground cover is gone. Premium prices paid for Sonoma County grapes have led farmers to scrape away apple orchards, oaks, and redwoods; bulldoze; hills and fill valleys; construct elaborate drainage and erosion-control structures, sink ever-deeper wells; and lay down the acres of plastic sheets marking the application of methyl bromide, a soil fumigant used to control pests and weeds. 

Vilms and other environmentalists negotiated for a year with vintners to draft a new vineyard development ordinance, which, among other things prevents growers from planting dangerously close to the river. But the agreement arrived too late to halt vineyards such as the one that's ruined this portion of riverbank.

A couple of hundred yards upstream workers have built a boulder wall along the riverbank to prevent the water from stealing even more earth. But Vilms says these sorts of stopgap measures do more harm than good in the long run. Because the water moves more swiftly along the smooth, rocky banks, it tends to wash the edge farther down with even more force, causing even greater erosion. 

We continue toward another stone embankment a half-mile or so past the vineyard, and pull our kayaks onto the muddy shore. Vilms announces' she's going to show me one of the half-dozen or so gravel mines that run like a string of pearls along the side of the Russian River between Santa Rosa and the ocean. They were dug several yards off the river's edge, so as to leave no immediately evident damage to the river, but Vilms says they're a menace just the same.

We climb over an embankment of stones, installed to repair damage from a recent storm that blew out the side of the river, then walk a couple of dozen yards south to what appears to be medium-sized lake. It's blue, placid, and grass rimmed — rather beautiful, really.

The company that created this lovely pit has offered to donate it for possible use as a park. This is a sneaky gambit, environmentalists say. These abandoned gravel mines sit like a dormant cancer in the body of a living river such as the Russian. In the event of a ferocious storm, water becomes “hungry,” seeking out chasms and gullies with enough volume to absorb its massive force. These huge pits would draw the river like a vacuum, causing it to actually jump from its old bed and create a new one, ripping through the countryside in a quest to link one gravel mine to the next. This hasn't happened yet. But it's possible that no amount of ugly rock walls will prevent such a calamity when the time comes.

As we sit on a boulder, looking at the blue water of the abandoned gravel mine, talk turns to the growing suburbs of Sonoma County.

“They'd just love to turn this into another Silicon Valley,” she says. 

The answer to the Russian River's problems is simple, as Vilms sees it. People just need to stop moving to Sonoma County.

We get back into our kayaks and push into the river. We're heading downstream now after a 90-minute trek upriver, and the going is easy. After gliding effortlessly for 10 minutes we steer our kayaks to a gravel bar. There, Vilms pulls out a waterproof bag, which contains a knapsack filled with food. She offers me a nectarine.

We are sitting on the rocky sandbar, eating quietly, when I realize I have to urinate. But peeing on Vilms' riverbank areas is about the last thing in the world I'd consider doing right now. Finishing my nectarine I hold the pit in my palm a moment, idly considering throwing it into the river, then quickly abandon the thought, and put it in my shirt pocket.

Even though it's inconvenient to wander about with a full bladder and a fruit pit in my pocket, I’m not littering in front of Joan Vilms.

It's inconvenient to honor Vilms' environmental sensibilities in a greater sense, too.

Sonoma County, the vineyard-and redwood-carpeted paradise cleaved by the Russian River, has long served as the Bay Area's back-to-nature getaway. Bohemian Grove, the medieval-ritual wooded retreat for wealthy masters of the universe, is there. Canoeing, rafting, fishing, and camping companies by the score are there. And big-backyard country homes — beautiful places outlined by blackberry bushes, shaded by redwoods — are tucked into every cranny that's not completely citified, designated wilderness, or carpeted by grape leaves. 

The Russian River and the Sonoma Valley it carved are San Francisco's version of the Californian frontiersman dream. This is where the American idea of endless possibilities is expressed in the act of striking out for the territories when the notion arises.

But perhaps more than elsewhere in California, the Russian River lays bare the tattered movie-set architecture behind this frontier fantasy.

As water systems around the state are forced to confront the federal government's decision to define salmon, trout, and other fish as endangered species, sacrifices are going to have to be made. Already communities around Sonoma County have instituted urban-growth boundaries, an effort to halt resource devouring urban sprawl. This fall Sonoma voters are expected to pass a referendum called the Rural Heritage Initiative, which would require any changes in the county's general plan to be put to a popular vote.

If similar measures elsewhere are any guide, housing will become more expensive, people will be forced to live closer together, to give up their cars, and their yards, and the option of installing private native-plant gardens. Sonoma County environmentalists, many of whom warmed to the cause only when they found new houses encroaching on their own homesteads, are going to have to accept a more urban, efficient way of life if they truly wish to preserve the environment. The day when people like Joan Vilms can strike out for Sebastopol, Sonoma County, to live a rural, natural way of life, will have to pass into history, if the Russian River is to survive.

Joan Vilms and I get back into the kayaks and continue down the river. 

An osprey dances on the breeze overhead, then disappears into a twiggy nest atop an old dead pine.

I lose myself in the rhythm of my paddle, the sensation of a fresh breeze that's now coming off the water. I look several summers into the future and imagine the sand of a dry Russian River riverbed. I cast my mind toward the rubber dam, and imagine an empty riverbank berm. Thanks to the Endangered Species Act and a tiny microbe, my fantasy imagines, the dam is gone. I imagine hydroelectric dams demolished all over the California Sierra Nevada, the Cascades, and the Siskiyous, because saving species requires this. I imagine housing tracts turning into apartment buildings, automobiles becoming trolley cars, and suburban Sonoma County strip malls transforming into urban corner stores. I imagine Joan Vilms getting rid of her minivan and kayaks, because there's simply not enough space for people to live a frontier lifestyle if wilderness is to survive.

Suddenly I'm snapped from my fantasy by an unseen swift current and pulled toward a clump of low-hanging trees along the river's edge. I duck, but become tangled among the branches just the same. To my clumsiness, Joan Vilms offers this hollered advice, which the rest of California might also heed: “Watch out!”

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