California Coastkeeper Alliance Files Lawsuit to Protect the Russian River

July 1st, 2021

Photo: Bobby Cochran Photography

On June 23rd, California Coastkeeper Alliance filed a lawsuit to compel the County of Sonoma to consider and mitigate impacts to public trust resources caused by unregulated and wasteful groundwater pumping in the Russian River watershed.

As the Russian River watershed faces a drought emergency, California Coastkeeper Alliance is working to hold Sonoma County accountable to protect public trust resources and prevent the over pumping of its waterways. Our lawsuit comes at a critical time as the drought will have severe impacts on salmonid species. Everyone needs to do their part to ensure the Russian River maintains sufficient flows through this drought, and that includes restricting groundwater pumping so that salmon don’t die, and surface water rights are not unfairly and disproportionately harmed as the state curtails surface water diversions.

The Russian River, its tributaries, and the aquatic life that depends on their flows, such as endangered Coho salmon, are protected by the public trust doctrine under the California state constitution. Large, self-sustaining populations of Coho salmon once occupied the Russian River watershed, but insufficient streamflow has negatively affected the recovery of local salmon populations.

Only 14 percent of the Coho salmon’s historical habitat remains in the Russian River watershed – meaning, we have to take careful action to protect and restore the flows essential to sustaining and recovering these fish. In watersheds where groundwater and surface waters are hydrologically-connected, protecting surface flows means maintaining groundwater at levels sufficient to ensure surface flows needed for Coho salmon survival. During dry years, this means protecting the Russian River and tributaries from excessive groundwater pumping that provide base flow to keep the river healthy.

Yet on many California rivers, including the Russian River, water agencies and state regulators maintain the legal fiction that groundwater and surface water are separate systems. They are not.  For example, during droughts, excessive groundwater pumping can divert environmentally critical surface river flows from below the riverbed. Similarly, excessive pumping can harm water users with rights to use surface water. 

The lawsuit filed today is among the first-of-its kind to enforce the 2018 California Court of Appeal decision (Environmental Law Foundation v. State Water Resources Control Board) that held allowing over pumping of groundwater in hydrologically-connected watersheds can be a violation of the public trust doctrine.

This is an important move during this historic drought to protect salmon populations that are already at risk of extinction, and to protect surface water users already facing severe curtailments from being harmed further by unregulated and wasteful groundwater pumping.

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Categories: Drought & Water Conservation, Enforcement, Flows for Fish, Happening Now