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West Coast Grapegrowers Confront Water Shortage

Farmers, businesses and residents fight over dwindling supply; climate change will only exacerbate the problem

Harris Meyer
Posted: October 29, 2009

Confronted by a three-year West Coast drought, grapegrowers and winemakers in Northern California and Oregon are taking emergency measures to reduce water use. Some are pulling up vineyards and digging water-storage ponds, irrigating more efficiently and recycling wastewater, all part of an effort to comply with increasingly restrictive government water-use rules.

But with farmers, cities, state leaders and the federal government all fighting over dwindling water supplies, and with climate change threatening to exacerbate the problem, there's no sign of relief. A lack of water could have a huge impact on the future of the wine industry.

A California mandate for Sonoma County residents and businesses to reduce water use by 25 percent and for Mendocino County to cut back by 50 percent ended Oct. 2. Local water authorities and wine industry groups say their water conservation efforts, aided by unexpected rains, met those targets. But the state water resources control board will hold a hearing Nov. 18 to determine future restrictions. The state legislature is locked in debate over a new water conservation bill.

In Oregon's Willamette Valley, the state government has limited groundwater use in several areas due to declining levels. In some places, the state has issued short-term water use permits to allow growers to establish new vines, encouraging them to shift later to dry farming.

Grapegrowers in other appellations face even tougher predicaments. Growers in California's Central Valley have suffered major crop losses due to severe restrictions imposed by the state. And development of proposed vineyards in Oregon's Umatilla Basin has been stymied by the state's ban on new well drilling there.

Experts say these restrictions aren't going away. Increasing competition for water between agricultural, residential, business and environmental uses make such limits a fact of life.

They add that the problem will be exacerbated in the long run by reduced rainfall and snowpack in many areas due to rising temperatures. A 2006 study published by the National Academy of Sciences predicts that increases in the frequency of days of extreme heat may shrink the premium winegrape production area in the United States by 81 percent by the year 2100.

"There just isn't enough water in the system," said Dr. Greg Jones, a climatologist who focuses on viticulture at Southern Oregon University. "When we go into these droughts, the amount of water is not enough to do what you would optimally do to manage your vineyard."

"Without a doubt, conservation will be a permanent way of life in this region," said Brad Sherwood, a spokesman for the Sonoma County Water Agency.

In the Russian River Valley connecting Sonoma and Mendocino Counties, the water crisis hit home early last year when growers all pumped heavily from the river at the same time to water their vines and protect them from a severe spring frost. The resulting fish kill prompted the state to put the local water authorities on notice.

Lake Mendocino, a major reservoir for the upper Russian River Valley and Alexander Valley, was already dangerously low due to drought, so the authorities had to reduce flows on the Russian.

"We had the potential threat of no use of water for frost protection, and that would be the end of viticulture in Mendocino County," said Sean White, general manager of Mendocino County-Russian River water conservation district. "That got a lot of people's attention."

White worked with growers on a crash program to develop pond storage, so growers can collect water from the river during high winter levels, use the pond water for frost protection, then replenish the ponds later from the river. The district got a $5.7 million federal grant to help smaller growers cover the cost.

Tim Thornhill, one of the growers who received grant money, is in the middle of building a storage pond on his family's 150-acre La Ribera vineyard on the upper Russian River. He reluctantly pulled out 6 acres of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc to accommodate the pond. One problem: The state is severely backlogged with permit applications for diversion of surface water into ponds. Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, said it's not uncommon to wait more than 10 years for a permit. Growers currently building ponds are gambling that they'll get a permit.

Thornhill said that he's also reduced water consumption at his vineyard by at least 25 percent over the past three years by measuring soil moisture and irrigating only as needed. "We water when the soil tells us it's deprived," he said. "It reduces the water we pull from the river. We end up with better balanced vines that produce better quality fruit."

In addition, at Parducci Wine Cellars, in which he's a partner, Thornhill built a $300,000 water reclamation system that allows him to use all the water at least twice in the winery, rinsing tanks and washing floors.

Zac Robinson of Husch Vineyards in Mendocino's Anderson Valley, said he and his family will probably turn to pond storage, too. But this year he had to abandon 10 acres of Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer that he lacked the water to irrigate. Husch has a permit to draw from the Navarro River, but the law sets a minimum amount of water that must flow below a grower's pump. Due to the drought, Robinson had to stop pumping in July. He drew sparingly from his small pond to irrigate his vines for the rest of the season. "Some would call it dry farming," he quipped.

He says he suffered an economic loss from not being able to make wine from those 10 acres. And the low river level has created tensions. "It does cause neighbors to look at neighbors suspiciously," he said. "You see someone upriver pumping and you say, 'That's where my water went.'"

The Sonoma County Water Agency hired viticulture consultant Mark Greenspan to work with growers on improving irrigation efficiency. Greenspan conducted a 300-acre demonstration project at Hoot Owl Creek Vineyards and Alexander Valley Vineyards, near the Russian River.

He stressed soil moisture monitoring, using more frequent but less copious watering, studying shoot tips, and waiting until July or August to start irrigating. He also encouraged growers to dig holes and study their soils and root systems. Keeping vines "a little thirsty," he said, promotes earlier ripening and flavor maturation.

The demonstration sites used up to 30 percent less water than traditionally irrigated parcels, Greenspan said. While growers are always concerned about watering enough to maintain a profitable yield, he believes he made some progress in getting them to change their strategies a little.

Even with the conservation efforts, Russian River Valley growers only averted major problems this year because of unexpected rains in February, May and June. "Those storms pretty much saved our bacon," White said. "We were able to meet the conservation goal and also have a great crop."

In the Willamette Valley, while there's less of an immediate crisis, growers anticipate tighter restrictions due to declining groundwater levels. Many growers, notably members of the valley's Deep Roots Coalition, founded by John Paul of Cameron Winery, do little or no irrigation of mature vines. And some wineries, such as Lemelson Vineyards in Carlton, are heavily recycling water for wash purposes. "Everyone I know is increasingly aware that water is not limitless in the Willamette," said Eric Lemelson.

But not all Willamette growers believe in dry farming. "In older vineyards we think we can improve consistency with judicious use of water," said Allen Holstein, vineyard manager at Argyle Winery in Dundee. Argyle stores winter runoff water in ponds for irrigation.

California and Oregon growers are hoping this winter will bring a lot more rain and snow due to a predicted mild El Niño event. But that won't spare them from the long-term need to reduce water use.

"One good rainy season doesn't alleviate the short-term drought or the larger societal issues about the needs for water," said climatologist Greg Jones. Growers "have to look at being more efficient, and giving the vines not what they want but what they need to produce good quality and a sustainable yield."

But with scientists predicting global temperatures to rise four to eight degrees by 2050, any solutions must go far beyond the wine industry. "You're going to have big water problems, and the wine industry will be the least of our worries," said Lemelson. "Hopefully we get smart and start doing something right away."

Dirk Arrington
Union, Mo, USA —  November 4, 2009 4:10pm ET
I was under the impression that the "global warming" scare was dead. We have seen much cooler than normal temperatures in the midwest all summer. We are also drowning with excess water! Why is California still predicting warming?
Colin Knudtson
Minneaplois, MN, Usa —  November 4, 2009 4:52pm ET
Good old globar warming. Give me a break! Warm weather? Yes. Being over-dependent of natural resources? Yes.

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