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Friday, March 8, 2013, 6:34 pm

Regulators scrap Napa River, Sonoma Creek vineyard runoff waiver

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    State water-quality regulators this afternoon announced the withdrawal of a proposed conditional waiver program for vineyards in the Napa River and Sonoma Creek watersheds from state-set limits on erosion and plans to regulate vineyard water runoff under more general requirements.

    Agricultural trade groups generally had been in favor of the concept of the waiver program because it allowed the industry to police itself under third-party environmental-quality certification programs already in widespread use in the North Coast. Yet, a Napa-based environment-protection group that has been battling state regulators in court for years over water-quality policy for the Napa River basin objected to what it called “outsourced” regulation by a third party and the environmental-review documents for the program.

    “Due to the comments received and current staff resource limitations, the Board will not proceed with the draft Conditional Waiver for Vineyards in the Napa River and Sonoma Creek watersheds and associated Mitigated Negative Declaration,” wrote San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board senior geologist James Ponton in a four-sentence email sent to those who signed up for updates on the waiver program.

    The draft waiver and accompanying environmental-review documents were released Nov. 16. Initially, comments were due Jan. 2, but the deadline was extended multiple times and the hearing dates pushed back, with board staff listing the volume of comments as the cause. The most recent hearing before the regional board was scheduled for March 18.

    Three of the 19 comment letters posted as of today were from Chris Malan of a Napa-based group called Living Rivers Council and from its law firm in this matter, Lippe Gaffney Wagner of San Francisco.

    In a Feb. 1 letter to the San Francisco Bay water board, the law firm pointed out that a recent Alameda County court ruling, now on appeal, against the environmental documents used in crafting the total maximum daily load, or TMDL, limits for the Napa River watershed also apply to the waiver’s documents. The six-page letter listed 11 problems with the waiver program, partly based on the third-party management of farming plans that would be filed by property owners under the waiver program but largely stemming from the 2011 lawsuit.

    The same group last summer won a victory in Alameda Court against the State Water Resources Control Board over environmental documents used in the North Coast Instream Flow Policy.

    The San Francisco Bay water board staff now “intend on moving forward with the preparation of general waste discharge requirements for vineyard discharges and an associated environmental document under the California Environmental Quality Act in the near future,” Mr. Ponton wrote in the email announcement today.

    The possibility of coming under a variant of the national stormwater discharge standards has some agricultural groups concerned about added time and cost for compliance, which was already an objection over the vineyard waiver program.

    “I don’t know what it means,” said Nick Frey, outgoing president of Sonoma County Winegrape Commission.

    The North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board has been developing an agricultural lands discharge program that includes a waiver option, but the staff of that board has been working with staff from the San Francisco Bay water board to align the requirements to be consistent.

    “Recent court decisions are causing us some uncertainty on that,” said David Leland, chief of the North Coast board’s watershed protection division. “If they do not have a program, we can’t align with it.”

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