F ifteen years in Sonoma County, and I have yet to swim in the Russian River. Call me paranoid, but when I first moved here, I was told by numerous people that the Russian River, at least by the time it reaches the Guerneville, is hardly swimmable. Between the agricultural runoff and Santa Rosa’s treated wastewater, I’ve just never felt too keen on hopping in. So when I heard that the Goldman Fund had just given a grant of over $900,000 as part of an initiative to support Waterkeeper alliances across Northern California, and that a portion of the funds will be allocated to the Russian Riverkeeper, I decided to finally get my feet wet. My intention was to find out, once and for all, if this river is going to make me sick if I take a dunk.
The Goldman Fund–which I continue to write about because it has given away over half a billion dollars, much of it to grassroots environmental movements–is committed to supporting local groups in its fight to save the planet. Russian Riverkeeper, a nonprofit based in Healdsburg, benefits from their philosophy. I spoke to Don McEnhill, official Riverkeeper and executive director, about the role the Riverkeeper plays in protecting the Russian River and how it plans to utilize its portion of the Goldman grant.
McEnhill proves to be so knowledgeable that an hour passes before I remember to ask about swimming in the river, and by then, I know more about the effects of storm-water runoff than I would have thought possible. Currently, 90 percent of our storm water goes to inlet, and then directly to our creeks, rivers and streams. The outfall from city streets carries trash into the river. Our parking lots and roofs are designed to drain storm water directly to the lowest spots, picking up oil, refuse and pesticides as it rolls along. In the process, we are de-watering our urban landscapes and pushing an overflow of runoff into our creeks. The creeks are scoured by the flooding, the banks destabilized and mayhem wrought on the natural vegetation.
Riverkeeper will be expanding its current collaboration with the city of Healdsburg, working with developers to redesign their storm water technology, or lack thereof. Healdsburg is responsive and cooperative with the efforts of Riverkeeper, McEnhill assures, and together they have been able to sit with developers and share water-quality data, showing developers how they can retrofit existing developments, as well as comply with low-impact development standards.
In addition, Riverkeeper has set up at businesses across town storm-water filters that capture and filter the runoff from the storm-drains, ridding it of trash and pollutants–motor oil, cigarette butts, pop cans, stir sticks. All kinds of junk collects in these things, McEnhill tells me. People are always amazed when they look inside the grated storm-drain “drop-in” and discover it loaded with trash.
Because we don’t swim when it rains, McEnhill says, California is way behind the curve on this type of technology. In the winter, when the Russian River is overflowing with garbage, treated wastewater and the runoff from people’s overfertilized and Roundup-polluted yards, we’re not in it, and by the time we are, the river is safe enough to swim in again.
To help keep the river swimmable, volunteer Creek Keepers patrol the river looking for problems, from Cloverdale all the way to the river’s mouth in Jenner. The Creek Keepers, who have been patrolling since 2005, have to go through an intensive global stewardship program. They are the eyes and ears for Russian Riverkeeper, performing water-quality monitoring, and watching for the all too common illegal dumping.
McEnhill, perhaps sensing my reluctance to believe, assures me that if there were dangerous bacteria in the Russian River, Riverkeepers would know about it and would be doing something to solve the problem. For further reassurance, McEnhill tells me that his 87-year-old aunt swims in the river every day.
Last year, for the 20th annual Russian River Clean-up, over 3,000 people turned up to comb the beaches on foot and by canoe. In 2005, Russian Riverkeeper was given the five-acre strip of beach in Guerneville once named “liquor store beach.” Now, every Wednesday morning, Russian Riverkeeper is on hand with native plants, gloves, tools and trainers, ready to teach volunteers how to identify and remove invasive plants and replace them with the good ones.
OK, I’ll dip a toe in.
For those who wish to ensure that the Russian River continues to be a safe place for people of all ages to frolic, consider attending the 16th annual, Russian River Festival, held Sept. 21 at Burke’s Canoe Trips in Guerneville, featuring sustainable eats, barbecue, live music and wine. For more information about the Russian River Keepers, volunteer opportunities and their upcoming event, go to www.russianriverkeeper.org.