To grapegrowers, few things are as terrifying as a late spring frost that threatens to kill off vine buds just as growing season is starting. The most common form of protection is spraying the vines continuously with water—the heat generated as the resulting ice forms shields buds from cold air. But what if there is no water?
A battle between California vineyard owners and government regulators over using Russian River water for frost protection is heating up. Late last month, federal officials rejected a Sonoma County proposal for monitoring and reducing river water usage. The feds believe the proposed rules were insufficient. At the same time, a winery released a study claiming new restrictions would cost the state economy more than $2 billion a year.
The Russian River flows through some of California's top vineyards on its 110-mile route from Mendocino County to the Pacific. But thanks to three years of drought, parts of the river nearly ran dry last summer. That's made it the latest battleground in a growing number of fights over water rights, as Western states try to balance the needs of growing populations, farms and environmental concerns. In April 2008, growers’ heavy diversion of river water to protect vines during severe frosts lowered river levels enough to kill significant numbers of protected salmon. The National Marine Fisheries Service and California's State Water Resources Control Board announced plans to regulate use of Russian River water in Mendocino and Sonoma Counties. Several environmental groups signaled that they might file a lawsuit under the Endangered Species Act demanding that the state board protect the fish.
In response, grower groups and local officials offered plans to better monitor water levels and try to devise ways to minimize diversions. Last year, some growers built storage ponds, which can be filled when the river is high and used during frosts. Sonoma County officials proposed an ordinance requiring growers to obtain an annual permit for frost water use and provide a usage plan. The Mendocino County irrigation district implemented new stream gauges, a reservoir release schedule, better frost forecasting and other measures to reduce water demand.
But in an Oct. 19 letter to the Sonoma Board of Supervisors, the fisheries service shot down the draft ordinance because it “lacks the means to establish a meaningful monitoring program and a transparent process.” Then the state water board announced a Nov. 17 public hearing in Santa Rosa to discuss a proposal to bar diversions from the Russian River system from March 15 to May 15 unless growers comply with an approved water management program protecting the fish. Board spokesman William Rukeyser said his agency is in the beginning stages of the rulemaking process and is “at least months away” from finalizing any rule. “We can’t have uncoordinated pumping from the river during frost events,” he said. Any new coordinated pumping system, he added, must have universal participation, but the board is open to various approaches.
But Sean White, general manager of the Mendocino County irrigation district, expressed frustration with the federal and state agencies. “The bar seems to be moving higher and higher, so there’s a de facto prohibition on the use of frost water,” he said. “If you can’t frost protect, you’re dead.”
On Oct. 26, Russian River Valley winery Williams Selyem released a study it commissioned by a Sonoma State University economist showing that restricting frost water use could cost the California economy more than $2 billion a year if vineyards lost 10 percent of their crop due to frost—including $143 million in lost tax revenue, $113 million in decreased land values and more than 8,000 jobs. Those losses would be magnified if growers lost 30 percent or more, which some experienced during the 2008 frosts, according to John Dyson, Williams Selyem co-owner.
“We depend on this water five to 15 nights a year, when it’s absolutely critical for the grape crop,” Dyson said. “We don’t believe we make any difference in the height of the river when we pump for four to five hours at night. Let’s balance the needs of the fish, the farmers and the municipal water users. I don’t understand why we can’t figure out a plan without this draconian rule.”
But Rukeyser called Dyson’s study findings “bizarre,” based on the misconception that the water board wants to completely ban frost water pumping. “If you do an analysis based on faulty assumptions, you get faulty conclusions,” he said. “It’s garbage in, garbage out.”
Tom Miller — Vestavia Hills, AL — November 8, 2010 2:45pm ET
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