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ALEXANDER VALLEY – Sonoma County planning officials will have to decide starting this month whether a proposal to commercially skim gravel bars in several miles of the Russian River through Alexander Valley would be worth it for increasing the supply of choice aggregate, protecting acres of riverside vineyards and a key bridge from erosion and opening creeks to migration of protected fish.

The Sonoma County Planning Commission on June 17 is set to consider the draft environmental impact report for Syar Industries' proposed Alexander Valley Instream Mining Project. The last public meeting on the project was a Geyserville scoping meeting in May 2006 for preparation of the environmental report.

"We're into this for $1.5 million so far, with $750,000 paid to the county so far for the EIR," said Syar spokesman Ralph Locke. The company plans to spend another $1.5 million over the life of the project on restoration projects.

Napa-based Syar Industries wants to skim gravel from 15 bars on a 6.5-mile stretch of the river from the Jimtown Bridge to two miles north of the Geyserville Bridge over 15 years. The gravel would be mined from four bars each season and only one at any given time. Repeat mining would be done based on the annual rate at which the river moved the polished stones toward the Pacific Ocean.

The county's 1994 Aggregate Resource Management plan found the river annually washes down 200,000 cubic yards of sand and gravel, equivalent to 300,000 tons, in the Alexander Valley reach of the river, according to the draft project environmental document.

The rounded edges of river-mined sand and gravel are valued for use in concrete and asphalt. However, such mining has become a lighting rod for political opposition in the North Coast in the past few decades.

The Syar proposal would require an amendment of the county's 1994 Aggregate Resource Management plan to issue a mining permit for longer than 10 years and for an "adaptive management strategy" for riparian and fish habitat restoration based on new guidance on instream mining from NOAA Fisheries.

As part of that strategy Syar would construct three oxbows and three alcoves in the stretch of river and replant 11 acres of native riparian trees and plants.

Three of the alcoves, which create eddies in river current to allow fish to rest during migration, would be created in the first six-year mining cycle at the mouths of Rancheria, Miller and Gill creeks.

Gravel bars that have accumulated at the confluences of those waterways with the river would be skimmed in a horseshoe pattern on the downstream side with the intent to allow fish to pass in and out of the creek without the river having to be extraordinarily high.

The Syar family, which owns 350 acres of vineyards in the middle reach of the Russian River and 20 acres in Alexander Valley, as well as other property owners in the project area, are promoting gravel removal as a way to prevent strong river currents from being pushed by the accumulated gravel into opposite banks with enough force to accelerate erosion.

Two particular gravel bars just north of the Geyserville Bridge are fingered for directly contributing to the washout of the bridge in 2006, significant erosion of the western approach to the new $29.1 million bridge and endangerment of River Road just north of the bridge.

A traditional method for controlling erosion – dumping large boulders on the threatened bank, as Caltrans did early this winter at the bridge – has been increasingly frowned upon by environmental regulators. Bioengineering of river banks, or strategic planting of native plants and trees on top of rock-armored soil, has been employed at several locations along the river.

Critics of Syar Industries' Alexander Valley Instream Mining Project contend that gravel mining is the wrong approach for helping fish migration and combating erosion.

"We should get things out of the river's way," said Don McEnhill, executive director of Russian Riverkeeper. "We're looking for miners for erosion control and fish habitat. We're using the worst tool in the tool belt."

He suggests managing river erosion problems via permits and conservation easements to prevent the river from eroding prime property as its twists and turns. Importation of gravel into the county, particularly by the planned freight train service, is preferred.

The group also is opposed to NOAA Fisheries' new instream aggregate mining guidelines, contending that minimized gravel bars would increase erosion downstream from faster river currents. Faster-moving water would also carry along too much sediment, something groups such as Trout Unlimited have indicated as a problem for the lower section of the river.

Another concern is air pollution from truck traffic to Syar's Healdsburg plant.

The Planning Commission hearing on the instream project is set for 1 p.m. on June 17 in the PRMD hearing room.

The draft report is posted at sonoma-county.org/prmd/docs/eir/syar/. Comments are due at 5 p.m. that day. They can be mailed to Sonoma County Permit and Resource Management Department, 2550 Ventura Ave., Santa Rosa, CA 95403, Attn: Melinda Grosch.