Descending the Russian River | Part 1

By Lisa Micheli, PhD, President & CEO, Sept 6, 2016

The evening before Day 1, Leg Two, Part One – Cloverdale to Healdsburg, 17.5 miles

“I love that you woke up at 5 am to work this morning just so that you can wake up even earlier tomorrow to get on the river by 6. In Cloverdale. Why are you doing this?” asked friend and colleague Dr. Lorraine Flint, herself a river science expert, the night I was getting ready to paddle.

“Because people need to learn how important the Russian River is and that it’s basin is where they live. Because I want to get to know my partners better. Because people don’t know that Pepperwood works on watersheds. And because darn it, I’m a geomorphologist and to understand the river I need to experience it in the field!” I responded, not quite so succinctly.

“I wish I was going,” Dr. Flint admitted.

The Russian River Headwaters to Ocean Descent is building momentum for a community forum next spring

And so commences my personal descent of the Russian River, as a participant of Leg Two, a run from Cloverdale to Forestville. It’s the second stage of a month-long celebration and awareness-raising event launched by Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore with long-time river champions, Russian Riverkeeper’s Don McEnhill and LandPaths’ Craig Anderson. This dynamic team has brought together a broad range of river constituents—too many to list all here, but some are Russian River Watershed Association, the Farm Bureau, the Resource Conservation Districts (Mendocino, Sonoma and Gold Ridge Districts), Native American tribes, Regional Parks, Sonoma County Water Agency—and Pepperwood.

Practicing my paddling over the weekend at the Estero Americano

I don’t know if I can make the whole distance, but I am giving it my best (we are haunted by the apparent carnage wreaked upon the participants during the first leg in late August, when the roughest reach of the river apparently claimed some kayak flips). Read more about Leg One of the Descent in a Press Democrat article.

I am literally on board starting now through Thursday. Our agenda takes us through Memorial Beach in Healdsburg and then on to Forestville, with many interesting stops along the way.

Friday I have planned a completely relevant detour back upstream to attend the Russian River Independent Science Review Panel public meeting back here in Cloverdale.  That’s only a couple of days away but apparently many miles before we rest.  A perfect ending to my exploration of the river! (To learn more and see the panel’s groundbreaking report.)

We are all supporting one another to bring public awareness to the Russian River this fall, to build momentum for a spring Russian River Confluence forum and workshop (stay tuned to the Confluence website for details), and to solve the biggest challenges facing the health of our river, our water supply, our land base, our living ecosystem. And we are all in the able hands of nature and wilderness guide, Meghan-Walla Murphy, who is essentially the captain of this freshwater expedition, and author of Fishing on the Russian River (check out her website).

Why? Because we all need to work together to ensure the health of the Russian River, the lifeblood of those who dwell within its resource-rich watershed and share in its bounty. To me, as a watershed scientist, it’s all about the watershed (or drainage, or basin, or valley plus bounding mountain ranges—depending on how you think about it.

Why Watersheds?


North San Francisco Bay Area Major and Minor Watershed Basins, from Micheli, et. al. 2010. Adapting to Climate Change State of the Science for North Bay Watersheds: A Guide for Managers. Pepperwood Preserve, Santa Rosa, CA.

A watershed is a piece of the earth’s surface—including land, water, and biota—defined by its physical geography.  “Drainage divides” or the lines you would draw linking the highest points between mountain peaks or even low-lying lands define the boundaries between watersheds.  Another way to think about it is that watershed boundaries define an area which would capture all of the raindrops landing within its confines. When I teach our junior college students about watersheds, I have them walk the path a raindrop would take over the land.  For water scientists and those who study how watersheds form (geomorphologists), we say a watershed is the area that captures all the rainfall about a specific point in a stream, gully or swale. This area is defined by boundaries that run along the highest ridgeline around the stream channels and meet at the bottom or lowest point of the land where water flows out of the watershed.

The landscape can be thought of as a nested set of watersheds, with the largest divisions being the drainages of big rivers and the smallest sub-watersheds delineating the drainages of the tributaries. The watershed turns out to be an extremely useful way to think about the structure of ecosystems and for environmental planning.

Watersheds are a natural geographic boundary for analyzing and planning for natural resources. Many aspects of water security, species conservation, ecological restoration, vegetation management and land planning are best thought about as operating within watersheds.

Pepperwood is a steward of critical headwaters for the Russian River Basin


View north of Pepperwood from Three Tree Hill


When I was interviewing to work at Pepperwood, our founder Herb Dwight said “your resume is all about water—we don’t have much of that up here on the preserve.  So what’s your interest?”  I responded that after a career so far dedicated to 15+ years of river restoration, it was clear to me that to restore the river we needed to restore the headwaters.

And that’s what Pepperwood is protecting and restoring—3,200 acres of lower Russian River headwaters, including those of Mark West, Brooks, and Maacama Creeks.

But beyond protecting and restoring our substantial headwaters, I aim for Pepperwood to serve as a watershed sentinel site and as a vehicle for not only sharing, but demonstrating science-based best practices for watershed management.  I encourage folks to check out our recently released Adaptive Management Plan, which includes a preserve-wide strategy to protect and restore the hydrologic connectivity between headwaters, streams, the Laguna, the Russian River, and ultimately the Pacific Ocean!

Would you like to support Pepperwood’s work advancing the health of the Russian River?
Please consider making a tax-deductible donation today.

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Stay tuned for more updates from the river!



  1. Don Prial says:

    When it comes to preserving and restoring the Russian River’s watershed, Pepperwood’s leaders and staff are not only taking the talk and walking the walk but actually paddling the river! Well done, everyone.

  2. Linda McJannet says:

    Great project–and great explanation/definition of watersheds. I want to walk the path of a drop of what next time I’m in Sonoma County!

  3. Richard M says:

    This sounds like a fun and educational trip. I am all for protecting and enjoying the Russian River. I am also for protecting and enjoying the Eel River. Water should not be transferred from the Eel River to the Russian River and put fish and other wildlife in both rivers at risk. Please check for more information.

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