Russian River TMDLs

Russian River Watershed Overview

The Russian River drains a 1,485 square mile watershed in Mendocino and Sonoma counties, California. Major tributaries to the Russian River include Forsythe Creek, Big Sulphur Creek, Dry Creek, Laguna de Santa Rosa, and Austin Creek. There are two major dams in the watershed, creating Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma.

To receive notices and information on the Russian River via e-mail, please go to Listserve and click on “Russian River TMDL.”  Below is a link to a map of the watershed, which shows the major towns, highways, and waterbodies within the Russian River Watershed boundaries.


Water bodies in the Russian River watershed are listed under the Clean Water Act Section 303(d) (per the 2012 List) due to impairments to water quality by several pollutants.

The entire Russian River watershed is impaired for sediment and temperature. Recent data show a pathogen impairment throughout the watershed, as well.Green Valley Creek is listed as impaired for dissolved oxygen. Lake Sonoma, Lake Mendocino, and the Laguna de Santa Rosa are impaired for mercury in fish tissue. The Laguna de Santa Rosa is also impaired for phosphorus and dissolved oxygen, in addition to the watershed-wide sediment, temperature, and pathogen impairments (please see the Laguna TMDL webpage for additional information).

Several projects are underway to clean up 303(d) listed waterbodies via the establishment of total maximum daily loads (TMDLs).

Pathogens / Fecal Indicator Bacteria TMDL

Water quality studies conducted in the Russian River and its tributary creeks, indicate a widespread problem with bacteria and other evidence of fecal waste discharge, which represent  a potential threat to the health of the river ecosystem and the people who visit it. Fecal indicator bacteria can indicate the presence of pathogenic organisms that are found in warm-blooded animal waste. The North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board has developed the Russian River Pathogen TMDL to address the pathogen impairment and sources of fecal waste pollution in the Russian River Watershed.

Popular swimming beaches along the mainstem Russian River are monitored for bacteria every summer. When fecal indicator bacteria levels exceed recommended levels, warning signs are posted at the beach. Beach monitoring results are posted by the Sonoma County Department of Health Services here:

What can area residents do to help the problem?

  • If you have a septic system, have it checked and cleaned. If it needs repair, fix it!
  • When you’re enjoying the river, use a portable toilet or other restroom facilities.
  • Make sure dirty diapers are put in a garbage can and not left on the ground
  • Pick up pet waste.
  • If you keep large animals, clean up their waste - and make sure contaminated runoff does not reach your local creek or the river.

August 2019 Regional Water Board Hearing on the Russian River Watershed Pathogen Total Maximum Daily Load

The 2019 Draft Staff Report and 2019 Draft Action Plan for the Russian River Watershed Pathogen TMDL were made available for public download and review on May 9, 2019.  Written public comments were submitted by  June 24, 2019 and carefully reviewed by staff.  The public review drafts were further revised, based on public comments, and are now to be presented to the Regional Water Board in a hearing on August 14, 2019.  The agenda for this meeting can be found here:

An addendum to the Staff Report and a strikeout/underline version of the TMDL Action Plan are below. A Response to Comments document is also below. It includes responses to all substantive comments received in 2015, 2017 and 2019. Staff’s response to the 2015 public comments was to significantly revise the Draft Staff Report and TMDL Action Plan. As such, the 2017 Draft Staff Report and TMDL Action Plan, in combination, represent staff’s responses to 2015 comments. Nonetheless, individual responses to 2015 comments are included.

The Draft TMDL Action Plan includes special provisions that apply to Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems (OWTS) within the Advanced Protection Management Program (APMP) boundary.  A map outlining the APMP boundary can be found below.  The map includes all parcels within the APMP boundary, whether they are developed, undeveloped, sewered, or unsewered.  However, the special provisions only apply to OWTS within the APMP boundary.

The APMP Boundary Parcel List is an Excel spreadsheet that is presented in portable document format (pdf).  It is generated using tax assessor data for Mendocino County and Sonoma County and results in a list of Assessor Parcel Numbers (APN) and the associated addresses.  You can search the pdf using the Adobe Acrobat search (or find—Ctrl F) tool.  You will need either the APN for the property of interest or the site address.  If you use the APN, please note that Mendocino County APNs are represented in the spreadsheet as 7 or 8 digits and include no dashes.  Sonoma County APNs are represented as 9 digit numbers with 2 dashes.  Site addresses do NOT include a period following abbreviations for road, street, boulevard, or avenue.  Keep your search as simple as possible; for example, if searching for the street address 5550 Skylane Boulevard, Santa Rosa, try typing in “5550 Skylane”. Parcels found on the APMP Boundary Parcel List are within the APMP Boundary. Only those parcels with OWTS that are within the APMP Boundary will be subject to special provisions.

The Interactive APMP Boundary Parcel Map can be used to identify if a specific parcel or property is within the APMP.  There is a search bar at the top, right hand corner of the map where you can type your address.  The map should zoom you to the identified address.  Parcels within the APMP are shaded by a thin transparent layer and highlighted with a yellow boundary.

Full Screen view of APMP Russian River Map

In addition to amending the Basin Plan to incorporate an Action Plan for the Russian River Watershed Pathogen TMDL, the Basin Plan must also be amended to remove the special Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems (OWTS) provisions that have applied to the Russian River pending the TMDL.  These proposed revisions to Chapter 4 of the Basin Plan were released for public review in 2017 and the public comment is now closed. The links below direct the reader to the 2017 TMDL project folder, within which these documents can be found.

To summarize the revisions made to the 2015 and 2017 Draft Staff Reports to result in the 2019 Draft Staff Report and Draft TMDL Action Plan (Basin Plan Amendment), a Guide to Staff Report Revisions has been created that provides a broad overview of those changes.  This Guide to Staff Report Revisions may not capture the nuances and details of all revisions, which can only be determined by reading the Staff Report.   This document does not replace a response to comments document.  It is meant as a guide to readers, comparing each version of the staff report to the content of the previous version.

Agreement between the Regional Water Board and Counties on TMDL Implementation

Implementation of a Pathogen TMDL in the Russian River Watershed will require close coordination and collaboration of the Regional Water Board with local agencies.  To ensure such coordination and collaboration, staff of the Regional Water Board has entered into discussions with each of the counties within the Russian River Watershed, including Sonoma County and Mendocino County. The general purpose of these discussions has been to establish the roles and responsibilities of each of the parties with respect to TMDL implementation.  As appropriate, the agreements have been codified in memorandums of understanding (MOU). 

  • TMDL Implementation MOU with Sonoma County
  • TMDL Implementation Agreement with Mendocino County [Still in process]

Useful Links

Sediment TMDL

As part of our efforts to control sediment waste discharges and restore sediment impaired water bodies like the Russian River, the Regional Water Board adopted the Total Maximum Daily Load Implementation Policy Statement for Sediment Impaired Receiving Waters in the North Coast Region, which is also known as the Sediment TMDL Implementation Policy, on November 29, 2004. The Sediment TMDL Implementation Policy states that Regional Water Board staff shall control sediment pollution by using existing permitting and enforcement tools.
Specific sediment control measures that Regional Water Board staff are taking or plan to take in the Russian River watershed are described in the
Regional Water Board Staff Work Plan to Control Excess Sediment in Sediment-Impaired Watersheds.

Temperature TMDL

Regional Water Board is proposing to address the Russian River temperature impairment in part through the development of a region-wide temperature TMDL implementation policy.

Mercury TMDLs

Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma in the Russian River have been listed under Section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act for mercury pollution measured in fish tissue. Mercury, also called quicksilver, is a heavy metal and potent neurotoxin that is harmful to humans and wildlife. Mercury builds up in the bodies of fish and also in people who eat contaminated fish. Possible mercury sources include mercury and gold mines, soil erosion due to human activities such as logging and road construction, and airborne sources from North America and Asia.

A statewide effort to develop mercury TMDLs for at least 75 lakes and reservoirs is under development. Lake Sonoma and Lake Mendocino are part of the statewide effort.

Laguna de Santa Rosa, the largest tributary to the Russian River, has also been placed on the Section 303(d) for mercury pollution measured in fish tissue. The development of the Laguna de Santa Rosa TMDL for mercury contamination is not yet scheduled.

  (Page last updated 1/15/20->)